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All the Arms We Need Kristina Ten

“It’s not enough,” you say. We’re in the living room. The upstairs neighbors are vacuuming and the downstairs neighbors have music on and I am holding you. It’s an apartment; it’s how it goes. Sometimes it’s so loud you feel sandwiched between sound and sometimes it’s deafening quiet. Sometimes it’s neither of those and still you feel it, feel it extra lately, the way we, all of us, are surrounded but separate. 

Surrounded but separate. You hate it. You hate it. It makes living impossible. You ask to be held. 

Of course, I say. Anything.

But it’s not enough. I know what you mean. You mean my arms: only two, ineffectual.

So I go into the bathroom, become a starfish.

I have to grip onto the sink to stay steady, stuff a towel into my mouth so you won’t hear the screams. When my mouth has moved completely to the bottom center of my body, I know the transformation is done. I pinwheel out to you, stiff, sun-bleached, and briny.

You draw me close and I envelop you. Worrying my sandpaper skin will scratch, I try to be light about it, but you pull at me, saying “Tighter,” “More.” I whisper soothing wave sounds into your ear. I ask if you remember seaglass collecting, saltwater taffy, Bodega Bay in the cold summer. I hold you till I feel my new body starving, drying up like it’s been left on the shore. 

It’s been this way for I don’t know how long: all of us being surrounded but separate, and this making living impossible for you. We’ve read articles. We’ve gotten opinions and second opinions. You’ve been prescribed exercise and journaling and more time in the sun. Someone has suggested the healing power of touch. Human touch, they said, but—

“It’s not enough.”

I excuse myself again. This time, I try an octopus. When I leave the bathroom, the towel I used to muffle is shredded from the sharp beak of my octopus mouth. As my tentacles drag down the hallway, they make the whoosh-plop-plop of suction cups on the hardwood floor.

“Please,” you say, your arms outstretched. You have been doing things to them, with them. They are crisscrossed with pink lines.

I want to be all the arms you need.

I wrap myself around you, thick, wet, flopping, struggling to maneuver the weight of all eight limbs. I try to face the suckers away so they don’t leave welts. You’ve tried cupping already, been prescribed acupuncture, meditative sound baths. I sing whale songs, the shanties of drowned sailors, other lullabies of the deep. You hug me back, crying into the nook under my bulbous head. My body reacts to the salt and I feel a violent internal pitch toward the sea. The next time you speak, I’m so startled, I release ink onto the rug.

“Still not enough.”

Anything. I would do anything.

You have been doing this lately, with almost manic concentration: organizing the items in our apartment into two piles, smooth and rough. In one pile, a porcelain bowl, an apple, stones from an old aquarium. In the other, a kitchen sponge, a small cactus plant you used to keep at your desk at work.

Every morning, you go and sit with one of the piles. It’s a way to tell me how you’re feeling, whether you think the day will be smooth or rough.

This time is the worst yet. It’s like my sides are splitting open, like I’m being unzipped from the top down. Blood pools at my left and right. In the mirror above the sink, I watch my facial features muddle into a hardened shell, a pair of bristly mandibles. 

I emerge from the bathroom, moving quick and slow at once.

“Milli” means thousand, but that’s not quite right. What I have is a few hundred arms, at most. I skitter over to you where you are sniffling between the piles, head in your hands.

When you lift it, I register disgust. 

But millipedes have poor eyesight, it turns out, and soon you are nestling into me, hugging me so hard it’s like you’re trying to bury your body into mine, and I realize that look I saw? That raised brow, that shaky exhale? It was relief.

We’re in the living room. Upstairs neighbors vacuuming. Downstairs neighbors—sounds like they’ve moved on to karaoke. 

“Enough?” I let my antennae dance through your hair.

You nod, nuzzling against my exoskeleton.

“For now,” you say. “Enough.”

 

Previously published in The Racket Journal, June 2020. Reprinted here by permission of the author.

© Kristina Ten

Meet the Author

Kristina Ten

Kristina Ten

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short fiction and poetry, and a 2019 graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Black Static, AE Science Fiction, Witness, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Colorado, where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.

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