We are the walls.
We are the walls who have stood for one hundred years and we will stand for one hundred more at the discretion of God, the weather, and those who reside inside of us. We have stood regardless of the scurryings of rodents on our backs and the people who painted our faces anew. We have watched you change inside the confines of us, and in this way we have shaped you.
We remember when he was young. His parents changed our paint from pink to blue because they thought he would be a girl before they saw his tiny body. He was so little then. Back then he would cry and scream and he would draw silly lines all over us. His parents were no better and they drew inside our mouth, little slashes and the date, showing him how much taller he had gotten since the last line. Tiny accomplishments, so he could see and be proud of how time was affecting his body. Time was affecting us too. Each day he played inside of us and each night he slept, we were growing hollower, and we could feel squirrels crawling up and down our backs. It tickled us. We watched him sleep. Remember how his little chest rose and fell so tenderly? His breathing was so soft when he was a child.
Now his breathing is not so soft or sweet. His breath changes between when he is awake and when he is asleep. There are stages in between his states of consciousness. When he is awake his breath is even, in-and-out through the nose, measured (he is a measured young man; he is five-foot-eight-inches by the last tick mark on our mouth, and his breathing while wide awake is almost always sixteen breaths every minute). When he is falling asleep, his breath comes faster, sharp and nervous. It has been this way since he was twelve, when he was afflicted with terrible insomnia. He did not sleep that year. He almost went blind, with purple bags under his eyes the size of his fists. We would watch him wide awake at the window, our nostril, looking at the trees. He would rock back and forth, staring out at the night, hypnotized by the prospect of something suddenly staring back. He spends some time in this nervous stage before he falls asleep, breathing sharply. But when he finally dozes off, he breathes like he did when he was young. Tenderly.
He never realized that we were watching him, and, accordingly, we knew him better than anyone else could. We saw what he did not want anyone else to see. We saw him healthy and we saw him sick. We watched him sleep. We saw him stand in front of the mirror and frown at the imperfections in his body. We have seen the birthmark on his right butt-cheek and the one on his ribs — his third nipple. We have watched him lean towards and squint in the mirror to pop pimples when he was a teenager.
There was the time when he stole his mother’s makeup. He smeared it all over his face like he was trying to be pretty. Or maybe he was just trying it out. He took one of her dresses out and put it on wrong, gave himself a spin in the mirror, frowned, took it off and ran out of us to the bathroom to try and wash off the mascara. He came back with his eyes all smudged, and having to explain to his mother that a friend had done it in order to ask for her help without letting the cat out of the bag.
We watched him when he stole his grandmother’s menthol cigarettes and smoked them out of the window, our nostril. He had turned on the fan and put a towel under the door so no smell would escape. But his mother smelled it anyway, questioned him, punished him. She made him stay inside of us for a week.
We watched him singing when he thought no one was listening. On those occasions he was not afraid of any other ears, and he would shriek and let his voice break and try to hit the high notes and dance to the songs on the radio. He put on a show for us.
We watched it all, all the gross things and the ugly things and the beautiful things. And we loved him.
We remember her. We remember when we first saw her, when our boy was five-foot-seven by the tick marks on our mouth. She was skinny. She had black hair and bangs, and she wore red lipstick. She had a voice that sounded like she was always being sarcastic. They walked in past the tick marks on our mouth and lay down on the bed to watch Blade Runner.
They did not make it very far. In those days our boy did not know how to kiss, but when he reached for her hand she met him halfway and when he kissed her she kissed him back, and they let themselves get distracted with each other.
After that day we grew to know her better. How she would play with our boy’s hands when they were sitting together. She would splay out his fingers with her own, gingerly moving them back and forth with her own. She could never sit completely still. Even when she was sleeping, her foot would twitch up and down, out of rhythm with our boy’s breathing. But she did not sleep often, and when our boy drifted off she would stay up and watch his chest move up and down so tenderly.
As if she could ever know him as we did! We who had watched him since the womb. She could only see him when he wanted her to. She never saw him in sickness, only in health. She never saw him sing, or pop his pimples, or frown at his body in the mirror. She never saw his panicked breathing before he fell asleep. With her he would try to hide the parts of himself that could not relax. So she never saw him unhappy or worried. So how could she have really known him?
Though she could touch him and kiss his forehead and speak to him, the truest parts of him were reserved for us and only us. There was no one who could see him like we could.
That is not to say that she did not come close. We remember when he was not a kid anymore; when his shoulders were broad and there was stubble on his neck where you could only see it if you knew it was not usually there. They had known each other for a while by that point and there seemed to be no more surprises. Our boy was bored. They would spend long hours doing nothing, as they had always done, but by that point he was bored of nothing.
We remember them coming into the room that day, when it was dark and wet outside of us. They sat cross-legged on the carpet, our tongue, and talked quietly, so that our boy’s mother would not hear them. They had a little plastic bag with two little paper strips inside.
“This is good,” our boy said. “I’m going to see you differently than I ever have before. I can’t wait.”
“Me neither!” She responded, as sarcastic as always.
They put the papers in their mouths and lay down on the bed, looking at the ceiling, the roof of our mouth. They stayed there for a while, talking quietly; but before long their eyes grew wider, and he stood up and took a record from a box in the corner and turned on the cheap pink Crosley turntable to play it.
“Look,” she said. “Your room is melting.”
He looked around him and they started to laugh. After that everything seemed funny for a while: The music was funny; people walking outside of us; the way kissing felt to them then. He was even clumsier than he usually was when he was trying to take off her shirt. His hands were shaking and his face had turned pale. He swayed back and forth like he used to do when he could not sleep. He started shaking even harder after he vomited down her blouse. She recoiled violently and shrieked, but we hid the sound so our boy’s mother would not hear. Our boy groaned and garbled an apology, trying to wipe off his sick with his own shirt. But she pushed him away and exited out through our mouth to clean herself up in the bathroom.
This is how we know she did not truly know him: when our boy was pitiable she did not stay and did not love him in spite of how pathetic he was.
Our boy crawled on all fours into his bed and curled up like a fetus. He was still shaking and pale as he looked at us, and said, raspily: “You’re dripping.”
Our boy reached out to brush off the drops of melted plaster he thought he saw on us. His hand touched us so tenderly, so sweetly.
It was strange, in that moment, because we felt we were melting too. And if only we were! If we were melting around him and pooling around his shaking limbs, we could calm his tremors and feel his breathing slow. We would cover our boy in plaster and preserve him in his perfect form.
Or if we could even just reach back and take his face in our hands! We would steady him and comfort him. We would wrap ourselves around him and show him how much we loved him. We would tell him who he was and how he had been shaped by us; how we gave him shelter and sleep, hid his secrets and sounds; how he was safe inside of us.
We are the walls.
We are the walls who have shaped you inside of us. When you left your mother’s body you entered ours, and when you left us for bigger and brighter things we remained here for you. Though we could never touch you we knew all about your body and your mind. We knew you better than anyone else and we loved you more than anyone else.
We could never tell you this, but surely you must have been able to guess.