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Published by Ouch! Collective Printed by Edition One Books
Editors: Alex Wu and Josephine Raye Kelly Assistant Editor: James Ochs Design: Alex Wu
Front Cover: Rudra Kishore Mandal Back Cover: Ayeshe-Mira Yashin
Ouch! Vol. 1 ouchcollective.com
Letter from the Editors
Ouch! Vol. 1 is an international collaboration of visual art and creative writing from queer, trans and nonbinary artists published by Ouch! Collective. Founded in 2022 by four Bay Area-based artists, we began as a response to a lack of support dedicated to LGBTQIA+ creatives in the art and publishing industries. We are committed to developing and affirming artistic projects of all mediums, promoting local events and shows, and providing resources to the queer, trans, nonbinary, and BIPOC communities.
Vol. 1 is our first publication and features fifty LGBTQIA+ contributors from around the world. We exhibit paintings, collage, sculptures, poetry, short stories, and hybrid works that border bold and dreamy. We are delighted to have found this global community of artists, writers, and creators who aren’t afraid to explore the depths of resilience and creativity.
This collection serves as a reminder of the cultural impact and innovation of queer communities, despite ongoing systemic and interpersonal violence. Our creative contributions won’t be overlooked and we will always find ways to thrive in community.
We believe queer is the future and we’re ready to shout that into the void.
We are a volunteer-led, horizontally-run, not-for-profit group. If you resonate with our mission and want to support our work please visit ouchcollective.com/support.
Alex Fonseca (they/he/she): ONE WORLD ABOVE/SELF NAMED p. 30
Alex M. Frankel (he/him): The Aging Priest and Bieber Nut p. 3, Dirty Heads and a Smell of Slime p. 1
Alexander Perez (he/him): forestlings p. 21, underfoot p. 19
Alexis Seary (they/them): Pandemic Love p. 28
Andi Benet (they/them): [open|close] p. 8
Anna Laura Falvey (she/her): First half of a 24 hour bus ride from Chicago, IL to New York, NY p. 17
Ash Bainbridge (they/he): the morning before the Sturgeon Moon p. 26, what i do not clock on our first date p. 27
Aynsley Leonardis (they/them): HAPPY STEAL p. 44
Ayshe-Mira Yashin (she/her): Mermaid Casting Spell back cover
BEE LB (they/them): on denying myself in search of another p. 9
Colin James (he/him): Those Fastidious Fiancées On Planet 55810 Fabiofazio p. 11
CULKeeeN (he/him): Kermaphrodit the No Gender Frog p. 42
Emily Sofaly (she/her): They came back with more secrets, silent yet ringing louder than ever p. 36, Auroras p. 37
Guy Nicholas Challenger (they/them): Juggler p. 11
Hayley Barker (she/her): Soft Dreams p. 61
Isabella Escobar (she/her): 29 p. 56
Jamie Avery (she/they): waiting room p. 63
Jason Masino (he/they): bellum gero et incendo p. 63
Katie Ellidge (she/her): Sheep Bones p. 20
Krapook Yanitta: Hollow Plastic Bodies p. 46
Laya Cooperman (she/her): Sea p. 16
Lee Fenyes (they/them): June’s First Morning p. 31
Madeline Beattie (they/she): Jetsetter p. 55
Maggie Kaprielian (she/her): Maybe There Are Some Rip Currents We Can’t Swim Out Of p. 26
Marcelo Gonzales (he/him): Fish Love p. 64
Micaela Guedes aka Time For The Oniric (she/her): House p. 47
Michael Larnelle (he/him): my recovering internet lover p. 43
Mikayla Elias (they/them): stolen blood p. 6
Milly Aburrow (she/her): Knot in my Stomach, Gummy Worm round my Neck and Spoon Fed p. 58
Mina Stollery (she/they): Swoon p. 73
Miranda Tess (she/they): Portal p. 12, 2 p. 13
Moriah Katz (she/her): Paper Dreams p. 38
Moriah Smith (they/she): Laura Sleeping p. 39
Nic Hampton (they/them): Ang Araw At Buwan Ay Sibling (The Sun and Moon Were Siblings) p. 53
Oliver Cain (he/him): Fruit Bowl V p. 68, Shopping For Love p. 67
Rachel Marie Cleary (she/her): to find yourself p. 62
Robbie Denny (they/he): Argus p. 4, Madonna p. 5, Vampire Hunter’s Trophy p. 7
Robert Beveridge (he/him): Chicken Salad and Out on the Turnpike p. 24
Rudra Kishore Mandal (they/she/he): Dhatura and Mandragora p. 22, Isolation front cover
Sam Matsumoto (she/they): Mina, Yuba p. 25
Sarah Herrin (she/they): Poetry In Motion p. 57
Sarah Judsen (she/her): Window Seat p. 15
Savannah Calhoun (she/they): Cyborg and T.V. p. 54
Seneca Basoalto (she/her): BEHIND EVERY STATE FAIR, THERE’S A DRUNK GIRL WHO WANTS TO GET FUCKED BY A CARNIE p. 45
Skyler Pham (they/them): Internalize p. 2
Sophia Bautista (she/her): spring is a girl’s season p. 32
SULO BEE (they/them/ze): B4L4NC3D_4_U p. 70, FL0W3R_P0TT3D p. 71
Via Bulaon (she/they): tongue in pussy p. 41 w.vv.vv (they/them): Spirited Away Bathhouse p. 34, White Gate p. 35
Wei Si Nic Yiu (they/them): Feeling Quiet p. 14
Dirty Heads and a Smell of Slime
Three studs in the bunks below me having mellifluous wet dreams put me in mind of “Acropolis Face” Yuzhnaya Shree, his muscular, apricot-scented body and his words “If only I had more sex, I’d be gorgeous.”
Like him I was admitted to the world in the 20th century, have lived an unsolvable life with pigs, crops, conservative beliefs, stupid fables and pines whistling outside the tabernacle. Three conscripts in the bunks below me moan out some mumbo-jumbo and exhale and I think of Romano Starwitt in his garments, how there was nothing until he kissed my lips. The asphalt in his tongue discovered smelly me! He thought like an eggplant from the northern reaches and morphed into a rank of organ pipes. On the third road from the olive tree, tanks are raging. In nine weeks all three studs will drop into boxes. Sergeant Donut used to say “See, war is about the breaking of ashtrays and the faint hedgehog smell of two worlds in mourning. Peace, on the other hand, is the dread of broken ashtrays.”
Let juice swill for an hour, lads, let it float upwards in butterfly cycles. Let three soccer stars snore again, electric dolls and grapefruits rotting in their cellars. I sink with them into row houses and parks and tar-kisses of the resurrection.
The Aging Priest and Bieber Nut
Lean Bieber dropped from a tree, so I worshiped him and fed him burritos, he burped and bit me, I gave him my wages and gave him a Barbie.
After years he got to be grand and querulous as if ruling over a saloon from very old times. Shirtless, he slapped my cheek with his foot: “This priest thing, wasn’t it just to please your mom? Am I right, Father Martin? Some believer!”
I finally stood up to him but hundreds laughed, they called the FBI who shot my brain out meaning now I live as if in molasses.
Bieber has aged, 25!, and smells like cigar smoke while I wait in molasses for a new head. How he romps, wears out his offspring and fans and wears them around his waist, conducts chainsaws that sail through the sky sawing. My time is heavy, I’m sinking south of the game. Near me a bishop writhes like a roach in a glue trap, they say he’s Bieber’s victim, too. Near me an archbishop moans, likewise a victim. We sink south of the game on mouse wings.
some nights there are black tendrils on the back of my neck
they spread their veins into flesh and pluck the hairs that stand on end
they reach around to hold me and I can feel their cruelty they drain warmth until there is nothing left but pain and they reach to hold the softest parts of me and seep into stretched hipbones they snap the sinews and twist them into belts and they lash and lash and I beg and I scream and I bargain but they linger, cold and patient they hold until I stop resisting and they watch as I devolve back to the ancients
I search for the warmth and there is none–they have stolen blood
on denying myself in search of another
i feel most like me when i forget the outline of my body.
when your body is blanketed over mine so heavily i forget i have form.
when i can see desire reflected in someone else’s eyes.
i feel most like me in pink platforms with tendons rubbed raw. with acrylics and coffee stains. wanting you to pick the color and not knowing how to ask.
i feel most like me with your hands on the safe parts of my body.
i feel most like me with hands on the unsafe parts of my body, but this is not about that.
this is about the cadence of my voice pitching higher and frying. the shame and obsession that pool as a result. about lips touching lips and not always the right ones. this is the peach pit that breaks open in my stomach each time you call me feminine. the inextricable desire i have for that pit, and the disgust that turns my tongue sour.
how to say a thing without saying a thing? how to say what i mean without letting my mouth ferment?
i believe in true love and i also believe in delusions.
i desire my teeth leaving tracks across your skin and i fear the cruelty of my own bite.
i grow out my nails now for almost the same reason i did when i was young: i want to instill whatever small fear i can;
i want the ability to claw my way out of anything; i want to look like what i can never be;
i want to look unrecognizable in the face of myself.
i feel most like me alone in a room and facing away from mirrors but this is still not about that.
this is about the cameras replacing mirrors and the body bending feats i perform in front of them.
i defy gravity even with all my extra weight.
i hate my face and i gift it to you anyway.
i stop and you stop and i don’t know who to blame. so i blame me.
i carve into myself hoping to erase myself and end up becoming even more me.
i spread liquid over my thighs and disappear myself.
i don’t get the response i want and resent myself.
let your kind words spill in the palm of my hand and wish you’d shake sense into me instead.
i slip in the pool of my desire and ashame myself. i slip into the pool of your desire and find myself.
i feel most like me when you tell me who i am.
i feel most like me when i let myself forget it’s not true.
Those Fastidious Fiancées On Planet
Forswear preparatorily on this quasi quidditch pitch your loyalty as resolve. That little skirt from Mangalings Department Store holds faster than most. I know, I’m running.
It was in the kitchen that I discovered my gender. The quietness of crisp spring onions waiting to be julienned. Like the budding expansiveness of my gender anticipating access.
It was at the beach that I discovered me again. The quiet moist wind of the Pacific Ocean reminding me of South China Sea pressed against my linen shirt. My chest disappeared and cascaded into fine grains of sand.
It was packing in my bedroom that I discovered me again. The quietness of my sheets wrestling against my flesh as I struggled to position the filler into my laced boy shorts. It was then that I felt visible not a man or a woman simply quietly just me.
It was when Lan braided my hair with such quiet intention that I discovered me again. Her fingers gently pressed abundant wishes into my hair. It was then that I knew my visibility is in the quiet process of feeling.
Midwestern cities look browned and dry and golden to my Eastern bones. Now, though, I try to find a discernible difference between this Indiana highway and the I-87. The only thing I can point to is the signage. There are more billboards here advertising Jesus and Chick-fil-a on this road.
Temporally, I am finding this bus ride funny. I am grateful for every passing moment because each beat brings me closer to home.
Oranges will still make my hands sticky and fill my cuticles with stinging yellow rind no matter where I break the peel.
Oaken rhymes climb from the golden fields of Indiana into the remnants of Florida orange burning my broken cuticles.
I make my dinner in and of the fields I scrape the dust from my skin, the dust and dirt and good thick pollen they are kindling for a fire a fire on which to cook my dinner which was the dust from my skin the dust the dirt and the good thick pollen
Somewhere in Indiana amidst the grey dead winter fields there is a grove of trees standing alone, growing together in a pool of water.
I am trench girl and I will build homes in the peak of the valley between to and fro highways out of soda cans and plastic bags and lanky dark weeds that have lain down to rest with me.
First half of a 24 hour bus ride from Chicago, IL to New York, NY
The sky spits witch weather.
If there was a ticket to enter my skull, it would be the cost of one’s best impression of Cher in her 1978 one-woman performance of West Side Story. The only reason is that it would make me laugh and my brain would blink just long enough to sneak past.
There are many single trees in Ohio under which I would paint my body with melted pennies and wait for lightning to strike.
i see green i see green i see green i see green i see green
Remembering the man at the beginning of the journey was making sure I was not British because he hates the British but I was not British though he thought I was.
cul-de-sac territory makes me want to rip out my heart and sink it in a manmade lake nestled deep in a bag of outlet clothing scraps.
Somewhere in Ohio: Old Woman Creek
remember i have no ribcage. only an exoskeleton. i shed myself, my cicada shield. every few years or so i become unravelled. do not crush me.
i hear you trampling the forest floor. i don’t think you heard me. tree knuckles crack, rodent skeletons picked clean. climb says instinct. she is hard to ignore. even though i swear by free will. it’s impossible to unravel mysteries. sometimes i miss underground. i dreamt of wings, a carapace, a simple, unending rhythm.
forestlings at the very hour i awoke no longer would i sleep. the dirt, the dark too cold. no air to breathe. i have eaten molted cicada skins. now i screech instead of sing. no man can hear me. there’s no man here. all my creatures make funny noises. you will know next year i hear the pine forest burn. i think it sounds like thunderstorms unravelling. i keep all the creatures safe inside me. here i am inside a blackened ribcage. brittle boned. ember heart of night.
The tire blew. Your spare has a hole in it. Twelve miles back to the last gas station and it’s ninety-four in the shade. You note the lack of trees with a shake of the head. Something will give. You relish the thought, tie an extra shirt round your head, set off into the area where the sun sets.
Outside on the Turnpike they asked for babies but all we could give them was boxed pancake mix. the bookstore was out of everything but self-help and mandarin oranges were back-ordered for two weeks at the zoo. This had turned out to be quite the unproductive day, so we stopped off at the coffee shop and drank two percent while we were put to work as emergency cradle rockers.
Maybe There Are Some Rip Currents We Can’t Swim Out Of
With the start of all my childhood summers, I would be lectured by my mother on what to do if ever unfortunately caught in a rip current. “Your first instinct will be to swim directly back to the shore,” she told me, “to muster up all your strength until you securely wash up on the surfline. Ignore this instinct. The current will only pull you further from home as your muscles become feeble and your lungs fill with saltwater. Instead, swim parallel to the beach. Eventually, the water will seem more still, less in motion, less daunting. That is when you know you’re no longer confined within the clutch of the rip current. You can now swim home.”
I wonder why my mother’s advice, so engraved within the surface of my memories, doesn’t apply to the waters I’m treading now. Childhood is on the brink of extinction, and I’ve never felt more uncertain about surviving. If I were to just swim parallel instead of fleeting from my own trepidation of inevitable change, would I succumb to safety? Would I reach the same shores from my childhood summers? Would I not drown on the swim back home?
the morning before the Sturgeon Moon
ice-fractal eyes bowl rock salt at my Cold Hard Bastard windscreen beneath a cloudless beech canopy, leaves startled mainbeam. No witnesses.
Two dragonflies patrol, helixing reverse-light tails. Parched algae foams dust suppression over hard rolling shoulders as spine, forehead, succeed where this summer sky failed: our shadow pools.
what i do not clock on our first date
blistering black ink (leg length’s my best asset) cumulative smear spots we sit and sweat with 99s swans and seagulls the purple ribbon the purple ribbon That Purple Ribbon scooping crescent where sundress button pops looping tongue tying her chain a bow between my teeth tippers uptipping bin bags of bread to swell birds mould the river invest in yet more black-creamery her submissive radiance my hungry salve she rubs between my open thumb and index
ONE WORLD ABOVE / SELF NAMED
i pierce through the skin hoping to find the diamond dripping starlight back into the wound. a self flagellation worthy of the angel i long to see. a heart poured moonlight / blinding through the night. doubt as the holiest flesh i have gnawed on from birth. the search always ceaseless, relentless. it’s the church wood scorching atop the mountaintops and the flames wiping out the forest and the body — specially the body.
i grind my bones into crystal dust and feed them to the wandering ghost suspended from the clouds as a reminder: can a haunting be a faith? can a haunting be the beautiful cry we have dreamed of? i become something moulded you can love and worship. i am one world above and i will play the part of god, invented through prayers. i become a primal thing. something you have yet to see; you lay your eyes upon my skin and it’s the danger of a creature
unknown. too raw and bloody. it’s the god that you have prayed for; too human for worship, ripe and ready to burst open like 2nd puberty; labouring skin, etching the flesh against the starlight. is this how i carve out a place for me here? fashioning meat to match the crystallised diamond? slicing through the excess and smoothing out the vessel? a chisel my magic wand, my own hand the creator. how do i explain the moulding if not through faith. the diamond, that rumbling thing
at the core of being. the wish for the mechanical engine. cold to the touch, glowing like a heart to the sacred beat. hips from side to side, and the stomping as the trembling. legs shifting lower, the bulk at the knees, shifting the weight — this is the dance, you shift the weight
i ride the ocean clouds at the speed of light; the ephemeral seagull cry echoes through the halls dark alien of mine, meet me mid-air and i will catch you.
June’s first morning
Watching trees overflow with leaves, I pour coffee that tastes of chocolate, smear dates with peanut butter.
The air is thick with pollen and fat bees knock against the window as they fly to their own breakfast. The trees have opened and blossomed until they hide anything beyond their own foliage.
Today feels full and luxurious; I trade my loose men’s clothing
for a cherry skirt and white blouse, still feeling, wholly, non-binary. It is only recently I have learned to ground in fluidity, and float along the waves.
It’s a pleasure to be peaceful and satisfied, committed to the milk-and-honey feeding of myself as the robins feed their children and the rains feed the dogged wildflowers.
spring is a girl’s season
see how she walks in? a primadonna, a muse
how the flowers throb blooming yearning for the wind that takes them out of this life
but they sound against nothing for what cannot move, flies lost in the passing wind
for the world loves flowers best when they are dismembered finally free in death
spring, the season of deceit how the day coyly spreads its legs how grass follows the force of your gait furtive like a daughter lingering always reaching for you
spring, the season of death how seeds break themselves apart just to be seen
petals, like rain against the ocean abandoning themselves in hopes there is something more something more than transiency something to return toan origin, a myth to prove there had to be a body there had to be a body there had to be a body there had to be a body
i saw ghosts rising from the minute blades of grass faint clouds of smoke escaping the green damp hair of the mother
i saw blood in the water at the early hour and soft tremors moving us at dawn did we foresee the stone-faced prophets, eyes on the moon when violets blossomed from their granite teeth and in their wombs when the elders ate the air the clouds the sun and the time of the silent witnesses had come?
One little hope written in glitter ink and folded like a prayer. Just one. There couldn’t be anything wrong with putting that in my mouth. My thumb, other people’s toys, a set of keys. These had been the things to keep away from my tongue. But dreams? That was uncharted territory. No rules, there.
Down the hatch, and it has that fake banana taste I associate with my sixteenth birthday. All loneliness and too much sweet. It’s always been a guilty pleasure of mine, one I’ll be glad to leave behind.
It isn’t long before the walls begin to melt. Something is lapping them up, eating away the layers of color and sound and replacing them with a reality I can’t quite touch. I reach out to grasp the table and it runs away from my hand, boarlike. I fall to the ground, and it isn’t the ground, it is grass, lush as the Amazon and knee-high. I try to spit out my dream and find that my tongue won’t obey me. None of my body will. The world grows dark and I do, too. I hope that whatever is biting me will stop soon, that the earth will stop quaking, and that when I open my eyes I’ll be back in my room - wall beads and plush pillows, a faucet that always drips.
I am not so lucky. I open my eyes to a purple sky, find that my body is not mine, but something I’d found in a magazine once. My hips are no longer a suggestion, but a declaration. My whole body is heavy. I try to stand up straight, but find my knees buckle. I am learning a new way to be, a new coordination for my Dream Body, and I do not like it. I’d never thought how uncomfortable it would be to learn to breathe through gills in my neck, to have to swim through the air.
“Where am I?”
There is a river kissing my toes. It wells up inside its bank and carves itself into a mountain. It doesn’t drown me like I think it will, only opens its mouth to say,
“New Orleans, year 3022.” A hundred years gone in the blink of an eye.
“That answer doesn’t belong to me. It is yours.”
Then he tumbles in on himself, settles back into the sand at my feet. He must be tired. All that rearing into the air and thundering voice.
I do not walk, so much as stumble over a sea of broken things. Rocks, the sharp ends of sticks, pincers of hidden insects all find their way into my foot, hungry as leeches. I don’t stop to pull them off. They can take all of me. I have more than enough to give, now.
38 Paper Dreams
It is both too long and not long at all before I trip on a group of bodies huddled around a campfire. I assume they use it for light, not heat, as I am not cold.
They are all smiles and warm tone, and so I smile too. It is my first time smiling with this mouth, and I think I like it more than the one I was used to. It isn’t crowded. I’m not afraid to show my teeth.
“Wow, and a great smile, too.”
“Here gal, aren’t you cold?”
“Yeah, it’s 20 degrees.”
I’d been such a wimp in the cold before. This body is full of miracles.
“I’ll take clothes, if you have them.”
“If we have them? Is water wet?”
I don’t know how to answer, because in this world, water talks and towers.
Luckily, this person - who really looks more like a star bound in skin - isn’t offended by my silence. She hands me a fur coat. It wriggles and growls before wrapping itself around my body.
“Oh, don’t mind him,” says the girl next to the star-person, a short, dainty thing with coffee-colored skin and a long braid resting on her shoulder. “He’s just excited, is all.”
I sit myself next to a man with three eyes. Each iris looks like it came from a different face. I ask him which one he prefers that I look at.
“None of them. Look at my hands, dear.”
And so I trace his hands like constellations through the sky. He tells me his name is Conductor, and that I am to love him. He has a high forehead and full lips, cheekbones that beckon secrets.
When I ask if I can kiss him, he says yes, that he is married and so quite naturally I may.
I part his thighs with my hand, am surprised to find my fingers swimming inside him.
“You’re wet.” I say.
“Well, naturally,” he replies, eyes crinkled in a smile. And just like that, I’d fallen.
The others watched, and I didn’t forget them, but rather enjoyed that they thought I was worth looking at. Life had never been that way, before. Back home, no one had bothered to look at me. I’d been skinny. I’d been small.
“Home?” the three-eyed man says, mouth full of me. Had I said that out loud?
“What is that?”
I search my mind for what “home” is, stumble across the memory of a woman’s face scrunched up into something sour. A soft, four-legged thing licking at my toes.
“Oh, I see. The place you come from.”
“Yes,” I say, tears stinging my eyes.
“But I don’t want to go back.”
I moan into his mouth, surrender to his smell of stone and tobacco. I want to live inside the cup of his palm, make it my whole world. I no longer feel the others watching. I please myself with the chatter they feed to the fire.
“Nia,” the three-eyed man breathes, no louder than a leaf falling from a tree.
“Nia” and all my memories of anything that wasn’t him splinter into a thousand shiny pieces.
I open my eyes to skinny legs crumpled in a green fabric. The legs that lemon-face woman hated.
“Hates,” I have to remind myself, because the sour woman is my mother, and I am back in her time, a hundred years in my past. I am back in the world called home: a wood floor between four walls leaning on misery. The tears come again, and I hope they dissolve everything: the curtained windows, the rug with all my secrets spilled on its wool.
I taste banana in my mouth, and spit it out immediately. Something small and wet falls to the ground. Paper.
I open it - tenderly, so tenderly, because I don’t want to rip the poor thing along its spine. My handwriting sings to me, bold against the white background: “Eat me and be free again.” ~
my recovering internet lover
out of your meningitic abyss you arise but paralyzed and with my traveled kiss you still cannot move but each night of your sapped convalescence I embrace your pulsing essence and rest my head on your intangible chest to prove my satellitic love my devotion know that some day you will return to motion aroused by lust for me trust though we are an ocean and hemisphere apart that each surgical thrust was a bloodlust battle scar for you are the only warrior of my heart
BEHIND EVERY STATE FAIR, THERE’S A DRUNK GIRL WHO WANTS TO GET FUCKED BY A CARNIE
Adoncia — I have never felt my belly so sunken lost beneath the breast
three stiletto nails painted neon green play their way towards my mouth to inquire about my catcalling tongue / hoarding honey & fry bread still sticky between each of my maudlin buck teeth
besas como si estuvieras en llamas come closer / do as you’re told as if held for ransom in a secret room inside the Juke Box Fun House / you only have permission to break jaw on the slope of your new favorite shoulder
every shade of night plunges against your August baking navel / a handful of lilac hair loss from where she twisted nape into the speaker & RUSH the ride begins / iguana septum hysterical elbows blind to Absolut this is what it means to be pried open & exposed
I am dripping from e v e r y w h e r e —a consequence inspired by how well you’ve been trained to tighten the harness
HOLLOW PLASTIC BODIES
I lounged in the flimsy plastic box I came with throughout the ride to my new home. I was as impatient as the shrieking girl beside me.
“Calm down,” a man’s voice said from the driver’s seat. I didn’t catch a glimpse of his face. Back in the toy store, the girl clutched my box in her arms, and insisted that he buy me as a present for tbeing a good girl for the past week. All I could see was the color of the man’s denim jeans and the diaphanous splotch of dark red on the fabric of his right thigh as his plump, meaty hands gripped the girl’s bony shoulder with such force I feared it would shatter.
But I longed for human touch. I longed to be brushed by sinewy fingers that weren’t quite solid and weren’t quite liquid either. The first time it happened was so long ago, when a girl stuck her finger into the tiny window of my transparent box. It was soft and fleshy. All my life, I had only known the texture of the rigid plastic that covered my skin. She ended up walking away, and I never saw her again. But the touch itself kept replaying in my mind.
“Your time will come soon,” Gertrude had reassured me from her plastic box beside me back on the toy store shelves. I knew her name was Gertrude because I could see it written in bold green letters adorned with pink butterflies on the corner of her box. But I did not know my own name. I saved that surprise for the day I found a family.
Two days right after Gertrude said that to me, she had got picked up by a gorgeous blonde girl with curls that fell like dominos down her shoulders. I had heard the salesgirl put Gertrude’s box into a pink little paper bag with white polka dots, taped it shut and handed it over to the girl. “Gertrude is delighted to finally find a family!” The salesgirl had said with a beam that was just as fake as mine. That was perhaps the first time Gertrude heard her own name. And I never saw her again.
The blonde girl skipped out of the store, face adorned with a grin that stretched wider than her petite cheeks. Soon, every time one of us got picked up, the salesgirl would recite the same thing with the same smile. “Lola is delighted to finally find a family!” Lola, then, was replaced by Juliet and by Emma and by Beatrice, but it was never my name.
Until one fortunate day, this girl—with black hair that shimmered like the edges of the moon on the night sky—picked me up from the shelf and brought me to the till. I kept my ears ready. It was finally my time to hear what my name was.
And as the salesgirl stuffed my box into the pink paper bag I had seen a hundred times, the girl wailed. She howled and screamed. “I don’t want her to be in the bag!” The man said something to the salesgirl and disciplined his child with a jerking smack on her back. I kept listening from inside the bag, but all the words echoed like I was listening from underwater. I tried to distinguish an unfamiliar word. The sound of my own name being said for the first time, and its brand new note as it curled from someone’s lips.
But all I heard was the girl’s whines as she demanded I get out of the box and walk with her back to the car, and I was thrilled to do that. But she clutched my box in her arms instead.
Even if the salesgirl shot me a wistful look, this girl was my family now, and I already loved her like I had known her a thousand years. I owe her my life for rescuing me from the toy store where I bathed in jealousy.
We arrived at the girl’s house. It was two stories high and larger than anything I could comprehend. As soon as the car came to a halt, the girl snatched my box and sprinted up the stairs into her bedroom.
She laid me onto the floor and started ravenously ripping the cardboard that covered the clear plastic of my box. But as it all came off, I was still stuck in the vacuum of the plastic container. She screeched for help, and the man came storming into her bedroom with a pair of scissors. I was going to be saved at last.
He shredded the plastic that covered my whole skin with the scissors and peeled it off with aggressive hands. I was exposed, like a little hatchling that had just come out of its egg for the first time. The man threw all the scraps of my plastic box into the bin at the side of the room.
And just like a hatchling, once one hatched out of its shell, it could never go back in. The loose air around me washed over my skin like smooth saltwater and the round edges of used soap.
The girl reached out her hand and picked me up with her fleshy and plump fingers. I tried to remember every crease and curve of them. This was the human touch I would be getting used to. They wrapped around my waist, and I felt a sensation brewing in my stomach as she lifted me off the ground.
She bared two rows of crooked teeth. This was a human smile, I told myself. This was the first time I had got a chance to study her face. Her eyes were a shade of brown that resembled the marshy dirt from the front yard of the house. And her black bangs were chopped in an unruly way, pointing all around like the shaved head of a doll.
She held me as if we were waltzing, and she twirled us around the room. “I am going to call you Peggy,” the girl said and reached out two fingers to brush through my tied up hair. Peggy. That was my name now. I had imagined the moment I would hear my name for the first time. I would be getting my first glimpse of my new family, and I would feel a surge of energy rushing through me. But this moment was just as magical as Peggy slipped out of the girl’s mouth like it was her favorite word in a language she was fluent in. And I liked the name Peggy. It was fun to say out loud, and I was satisfied.
But a part of me wondered what my given name was. The one written on the box that was now abandoned. The one that Gertrude could have read but never told me. And I promised myself that if I ever got to see Gertrude again, I would tell her my name was Peggy now. We twirled until the house spun itself, and the girl was high on laughter.
She laid me onto her bed. Her fingers fumbled with my dress, tailored in yellow fabric and patterned with blue lilies. She came across a tiny dent in my back. I always felt its presence, but I never knew what it was. Her fingers sank into it, and I heard my own voice, loud and unfamiliar.
“Let’s make tea together!” My body vibrated as the sound ricocheted from the back of my neck. I sounded fraudulently enthusiastic like the salesgirl when she handed the pink paper bags to the grinning girls.
She picked up an empty plastic teacup from her nightstand. And as she pretended to drink from it, I could see her smile dripping from the corner of her mouth. A warm sensation washed over me. She was happy, so I was happy.
The girl burst out laughing. Her large thumb pressed into the back of my dress once more. And I heard my voice say something else, “Do you want to learn how to cook pancakes with me?”
I did not know how to make pancakes. And what came out from the vibrating part at the back of my neck seemed out of my control, yet it felt refreshing to know there was something new in me that could interest her.
The girl did it again. This time, I listened carefully for what I would say next. “Bring all your friends! We are having a tea party!”
She stared at me wide-eyed. And for a moment, I thought the world had frozen.
But the girl’s face started to scrunch up, and I heard a thump followed by a heaviness as gravity yanked me to the ground.
“I don’t want to have tea!” The girl screamed. A bubble of snot blew out of her nose, and she started wailing.
I lay there on the ground, helpless. That warm sensation that passed through me earlier turned into a frigid cold that nearly made me shiver.
The last thing I would wish for was for her to already be tired of me.
I had this image in mind where we’d be together until her fleshy skin would start to wrinkle, and my taut plastic surface would slowly grow rubbery and sticky as I decomposed over time, and we would be joined by the memories we had made together.
I wished I could do something to cheer the girl up. She kept screaming, and the dams in her eyes cracked, letting tears flood her human face. But all I did was lay there, stagnant and impotent.
The man came into the room again with fuming nostrils. “Shut it!” he said and knelt down beside the girl, swinging his hand across the back of her head. He grunted something to her and threw her the plastic teacup. The girl stopped crying as she tried to catch it, but the blood had already crawled itself into the whites of her eyes. She nodded, and the man exited the room in a huffed hurry.
She crawled towards me, plastic teacup in hand. I lay there, staring blankly at the ceiling with my back to the ground. My head bobbed around as she lifted me up and nudged the teacup to my lips. But my lips were sewn shut into an eternal smile.
She dug the teacup harder onto my lips, and I could feel a tiny dent at the sharp edge of the plastic cutting my mouth open. I swore I would drink if I could. But she dug it in harder. And harder. And harder.
The lower part of my face was torn open. A curved line carved itself over my lips. I did not feel pain because I did not have any nerves. I did not bleed because I did not have any blood. My veins were as arid as a desert.
Somehow, I was disappointed in myself. I had thought smiles could only bring happiness, but at that moment, I knew. It was my eternal smile that brought pain among us. “Drink!” The girl screamed, but I did not drink. There was nothing to drink, and if there was, I could not drink. I wanted to cry, but I had no water in me to form tears.
She threw the plastic teacup across the room. It hit the wall with a stunted clang and landed on her bed. She traced the tips of her fingers over the tiny cut above my lips. I had thought that human touch could heal me, but it ended up hurting me instead. She dug her fingers into the gap of my hollow head and yanked the flimsy plastic apart. My mouth was bent open. Grotesque. The eternal smile vanished.
Maybe that was what had to be done.
She walked across the room and brought a basket of plastic fruits and vegetables to me. They were small enough to fit through the hole in my mouth. She stuffed it down my throat. They landed at my hollow feet with a thundering clink. And she kept feeding me.
I started to feel sick, but I swallowed and gulped it down. After all those nights on the toy store shelves, when I had wished someone would pick me up, I hadn’t thought of my incapability as an obstacle. I hadn’t thought about it at all. The last thing I expected to see was a smile on the girl’s face. She found beauty in my pain. She stuffed more of the plastic food into my throat until they piled up to the top of my head. Then, she bent me backwards. She tried to break me apart.
And I did.
The malleable plastic around my torso burst open, and the pile of fruits and vegetables poured out. I had no guts. My body was a flimsy, hollow thing.
My body was bent in a way that didn’t make me look human anymore. I guessed the dreams of becoming one have been snuffed out like a candle in a bell jar.
The girl started shrieking after she realized what she had done. And this made me feel worse. My pain did not make her happy, so my suffering was for nothing. She thrashed and screamed. She might as well rip her own throat out along with mine. And the man came rushing into the room once again with an ear-splitting roar.
I wanted to cover myself up and drown myself in formaldehyde. I felt like a taxidermied animal. My body was dead. But my mind was alive.
He shook his head at his daughter, let out an exasperated sigh and handed her a roll of tape. “Fix her!” he said before storming out. But I did not think I could be fixed. At least not superficially with a roll of transparent tape. The cuts were too deep, and no stitches could put me together again.
My fragile torso was already bent backwards, and now the girl twisted it back into place. My body bent back obediently, but there was a permanent crease on my back like a broken book spine. The girl took the tape and wrapped it around me tight like a corset. The stickiness binded my back straight. It burnt.
The girl held me at arm’s length and admired her work. She shook her head and set me onto her shelf. Beside me were dolls, mutilated until their faces were unrecognizable. I swore I could hear their voices whispering right beside my ear.
“Run. Run as fast as you can.”
I sat there on the shelves and counted how many times the sun set. I counted until I lost count and had to start again.
The girl came in and out of the room nearly twelve times a day. And not once did she glance at me, a disgrace, sitting on her top shelf where she wasn’t tall enough to reach on her own.
I felt the summer heat melt my plastic into a sticky surface with an acrid stench. A coat of dust collected on my skin, and I reassured myself with the thought that this could be a new fashion trend. Maybe I could bring something new into this connection we had—despite the fact that the dust made me feel futile and dead.
The girl’s presence was suffocating. Every time she moved, I winced. She took up so much space. In my mind and everywhere else.
I did not get physically torn open any more. But after I got on the shelf, I never got off again. I no longer longed for human touch. But the indifference stabbed me just as deeply.
When the girl came back into her room in the afternoon after leaving that morning, she was holding something like me. Tall, blonde, face painted with a perfect, symmetrical smile. Unlike mine, which was crooked, slit and sewn back together by an impatient hand.
The girl sat on her rugged floor and combed the blonde roots of the new doll. She placed a pair of heels onto the doll’s feet, and it fit like magic glass slippers. She braided the hair, and she kissed her good night while I sat there on the shelf with my stomach cut open.
The morning after, I woke up to the stiff grip of the girl’s hand around my waist. She held a pair of scissors in her hands. I remembered those scissors. They were the pair that set me free, but trapped me in another cell. I winced before they even touched me.
But the twin blades slid across my dark brown hair. And with a quick snip, a whole chunk plummeted to the ground.
And then another, and another.
If this made her happy, I was glad to be of service.
She held all of my hair in her hands, and there was this blankness that had appeared all around my head. I caught a glance of myself in the mirror across the room. And gosh, I was ugly. I wondered what she had seen in me.
I left the house for the first time. We went together to the playground. The girl, the blonde doll and I. She only took me because her father told her to. And because he had threatened her that if she continued to neglect me, he would no longer treat her with the dolls and toys she wanted.
She dropped me in the sandbox as she waltzed with the blonde doll in her hands like she did with me before. I sat there, my whole body sinking into the sand.
But then, something familiar flashed across my eyes.
It was Gertrude and the blonde girl. They were running towards the sandbox. I could spot that fiery red hair from across the world if I had the chance.
Gertrude! I wanted to scream. But I remembered that I could only scream for a tea party which was the last thing I wanted at that moment.
They both made their way into the sandbox, and they were making Gertrude talk to the new blonde doll while I sat in the sand with my hair chopped off and my face carved open. And if Gertrude had seen me, would she recognize me?
The sun set, and I started counting again. I was still buried there in the hot summer sand. They both said goodbye to each other, and I caught a glimpse of Gertrude’s smile. It had not changed since the last time I saw her nearly three hundred sunsets ago.
Gertude. I whispered in my mind. A cry for help, perhaps. But by the time I realized that Gertrude did not hear me, they were already gone.
It was the first night I had spent outside alone. After all the moments I spent counting the amount of times the girl’s room went black, I had never actually seen the sun gracefully sink below the horizon.
I no longer felt tired of holding my head upright because the sand did it for me. But with the sand, came the numbness.
And the anger.
I was numb with anger. It crawled onto me like a million fire ants. The sizzling summer sand cooked my insides, and they were no longer raw and alive.
I recalled Gertrude’s genuine grin and compared it to mine. The cut open smile, force fed by a plastic teacup. And it was the first time I ever felt angry.
Peggy. I repeated my name in my head. The girl was the one who weaved my identity out of the threads of her wicked imagination. I was nobody before she met me, and I was nobody after she left me either. Yet, when I was with her, I was Peggy. But Peggy was miserable. She was tortured, cut open, mutilated and thrown away without a second thought. I wanted an identity, but I did not want to be Peggy anymore.
Maybe it was too late for me. After all, I did not run away as fast as I could back when they warned me to.
The tape that held my torso together started to breach, and sand fell into the depths of my hollow body. It weighed me down, but at least it grounded me there and didn’t bring me back to haunt that house I died in. There were still remains of the stuffing inside my hollow plastic body. I kept the poison inside me for too long, and now my organs have started to rot. I had wanted to be human, but I changed my mind. I’d choose to stay what I am. Plastic and artificial. If truth made humans act like they did, I never wanted to be real. I wished she had never touched me because I was not new anymore. I was worth nothing. Not even to my own family, unlike other girls who grew up with their dolls and nurtured them even when they were torn and ragged. Those were scars of love. Mine were scars of torture. They would cherish their memories like gold. But I would rather die than relive mine. I couldn’t go back to the store and sell myself to another family all over again. I was maimed for good. Ruined for good. This irreversible truth burned a hole in my gut, and the sand seeped in until I felt as heavy as an anchor. I wanted to drown in this sandbox at that very moment because there was nothing left to keep me floating. If there was no way out, then I was going in.
She was a human with a hollow plastic body, veins flowing with nothing but malice. And I was a doll with a hollow plastic body, wishing I had the arteries with good blood flowing through them.
I imagined a reality where I were human. Where I wasn’t made out of plastic, and I could say whatever I wanted. And I asked myself: what would I do?
I would cry a flood and burn her house down.
My mother taught me to rip out teeth and leave them in exchange for money
Once I tried it for the first time, she was so proud of me for not crying, I began to pull out teeth before they were ready.
The pull, the snap, the break of my gums, the dentist told me I would need braces.
To see them so impressed by my tolerance for pain, the times that I bled from my gums were the times I felt the most embraced
It was then that I learned how to give pieces of myself, in exchange
For money For love
To please the ones I loved
Show me how to poem this cup of coffee into a door.
Here, it’s all windows. Days flap stupidly against the glass. The sidewalk spinner in my chest says her arms are getting tired.
Can we slow down? Can we go back? Those trees we sat under are buried, probably.
Show me how to poem this door into a map and meet me at the last BART station pay phone. Drop your quarters and dial me in.
Ask me what I want and I’ll say anything, anything. The future is a startled bird trapped in my chimney throat.
bellum gero et incendo
what’s in an armpit but nerves and why do the smells match each nook of my skin and why do droplets of my sweat dance about like a lost pup or kids at the skating rink: what’s in a scar but tension briefly released and then sealed up again with fire
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Ouch! Collective Vol. 1 ouchcollective.com