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Online Feature: “Conversation with Thorax” by Alissa Nutting

It began as a blind date. I nearly didn’t approach the table when I saw him sitting alone at the table we’d agreed on—the one on the left wall next to the bathrooms. I always insist upon this table for blind dates in case I need to cut the night short by feigning diarrhea.

He was a pale and prominently jointed man, each of his bones exaggerated by thinness. As we chatted, I stared at the huge knuckles on his fingers—they made me think of doorknobs positioned in the middle of long, white socks. He moved them constantly, every digit on his hand, working them across the table’s surface as though he were typing. They were industrious. He made neat, geometric piles of the crumbs left by his soda crackers. Small bits of napkin were grouped to look like a hill of salt.

He was an entomologist. He studied bugs.

I ordered drinks, holding up two fingers to indicate I wanted a double. My fingers made a V that I opened and closed repeatedly. S.O.S., I thought.

My date spoke in low, constant words. I did not try to differentiate one from another. How was his voice so low, yet his body so small? I felt like I was having a conversation with a whale’s larynx. In the light of the bar, his skin looked violet and shining. Nearly like cartilage. He didn’t stop talking as I drank entire glasses in one swallow.

“Do you live nearby?” I finally asked. He did. When I burped, my mouth filled with a chemical warmth that made my lips feel coated with plastic.

When we got inside I realized that his was a very unusual home. “There are lots of bugs on your wall,” I noted. Each posed like a heart in the center of a glass frame, a seeming act of magic until I stepped close enough to see the thin pins that held the bodies in place.

“Beetles,” he said. “Only beetles.”

I wandered amidst the frames. “Why beetles?”

“Of all the species known to science, insects account for fifty-five percent. A majority that does not even include mites or spiders. Yet forty percent of all insects are beetles. So studying beetles, I’m playing for the winning team.”

“Not like back in P.E. class, huh,” I said. But to show I didn’t mean this personally, that it was an observation and not an insult, I removed my shirt and let it fall to the floor.

“Beetles are the most successful pollinators and consumers,” he whispered. His voice was trembling. I turned and saw him picking my shirt up from the ground, running his busy fingers over it. They seemed to be taking in every inch, collecting sensory data. He looked at the shirt for a long time, and then my feet. “New beetle species are discovered all the time. Judging by the frequency with which we find beetles never before encountered, it’s a safe estimation that eight million different kinds exist.”

“Do you have any alcohol?” I asked. Finally, he looked up near my face at my breasts, one and then the other, his eyes searching them for minute differences. Perhaps his line of work makes him good at finding ways to tell the seemingly identical apart. “Beer,” I continued. “Wine or liquor?”

“No. Well I mean, technically yes, ethyl alcohol. And a small amount of acetic alcohol. To kill beetle specimens. Adding five percent acetic to the ethyl assists in penetration.” He spoke to my breasts as though they were two faces, each making the most interested expression possible in response to what he’d said. “That way the specimens absorb the alcohol better and assume a more relaxed death position. Not like with chloroform, which kills too quickly; the specimens stiffen then. I have some active Berlese funnels set up downstairs if you’d like to—”

“I’d like to drink something,” I said. “That’s all.”

He paused, staring at my breasts, thinking, reading them over with a scowl. Some important answer yet to be deciphered was tattooed on my skin; he seemed sure of it.

“I have mouthwash,” he said. “Please don’t leave.”

I laughed; this was actually a common joke of mine. When people ask what I prefer to drink, I tell them I’ll drink anything—You can serve me mouthwash garnished with a fishhook, I say.

Suddenly his breathing quickened. He took a step near me, gaining confidence from his new idea. “I have ether,” he said. “For some of my killing jars. You could safely inhale a small amount to produce euphoria. This happened to me once on accident.”

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s in my lab downstairs. Do you want to see the laboratory?”

“I don’t go into basements after dark.” I am firm on this rule.

In the past few seconds, his whole body had turned to face my left nipple, curled in towards its direction as though it were a source of heat and light. Now his shoulders hunched to bring his head in still nearer; I could feel his deep, slow breaths on my skin. “I’ll go fetch it then,” he said. He didn’t move right away though. He seemed to appreciate this nipple more than my right one.

I could hear his footsteps move throughout the house, echoing quieter then louder as he returned with a damp net of sweat across his forehead. “You didn’t have to run,” I said. He held the glass bottle labeled “POISON” in one hand, in the other a stack of gauze the size and width of a typical sandwich. My shirt was draped across his forearm the way a waiter presents a napkin. “Where’s your bedroom?” I asked.

I followed him down a hall lined with framed glass cases of beetles. Some of them looked common and indistinguishable from a roach; others were gilded and colored like gemstones. None had a pair though. There was only one of each. I liked the democracy of this, the way it made them all seem equally rare.

A light emanated from the door of his bedroom. “It’s the heat lamps,” he explained. “I rear several specimens. To collect them in various stages of development.”

We entered. There was a bed, a nightstand covered with books along one wall. The other two walls were covered with homemade shelves, unstained two-by-fours that held rows of aquariums, some covered, others lit.

“At least they’re not spiders,” I said.

“Arachnids don’t interest me.” He took a deep breath, and then there was a long, tense pause. Finally he exhaled. “If you’d like the central light on, that’s possible to do,” he said. “I’ll just need to move a few tanks of the teneral specimens. Their exoskeletons have not yet hardened. Look.” He pointed to a tank; its glass walls were covered with translucent yellow dots. “They’re all hanging vertically so their wings will solidify in the correct position. Light is highly attractive to them. Any new light source would cause a frenzy; many would be injured.”

“There’s enough light,” I said. I took off my shoes, skirt, and underwear and walked over to lie down naked on the bed. He came over and sat on the edge. I placed my head in his lap; I could feel the tightened muscles of his legs.

“Start slowly,” he said. “Don’t breathe too fast.”

I guided his gauze filled hand overtop my nose and mouth, looking up at him. I breathed and didn’t break the gaze. His head seemed to move several feet ahead of his body. Or his body was retreating and leaving his head to float there, stuck into place by an invisible pin. If I reached up, if my hands weighed less and I could reach up, I was sure I’d be able to feel it, despite seeing nothing—a cold metal cylinder sticking out from his forehead like a horn.

His hand moved off my mouth and nose. Every button of his white shirt was buttoned, closed. “You can touch my chest,” I said. My words felt too quick; they were something that fell from the sky and quickly passed by us having much farther to fall. His hands cupped over my nipples and ran across them. Each finger seemed independent—they all had a separate goal that didn’t fall into an ordered system with the others. Yet his palms skimmed back and forth with a slow, almost-tidal regularity. Adrift across my skin. On the wall, their shadows moved like something underwater.

I imagined the bed as a giant glass case. “How would you pin me to the mattress,” I asked, “if I were an insect?”

“What insect?”

“You’re the expert.”

“Well it’s different.” He swallowed. “It matters, what you are.”

“Take off your shirt,” I told him. It took him several minutes to undo all the buttons. When he was done he folded it neatly and placed it on top of his nightstand.

“All your shirts,” I said. He shed the thin tank top and placed it on the nightstand as well. “Okay,” I nodded. “Continue.”

The tips of his fingers stored cold like metal; they hadn’t warmed against my flesh. “The pins enter through the specimen’s back,” he said. I rolled over.

“If you were a grasshopper, the pin would go here.” One of his hands pressed upon a vertebra near the top of my spinal column. The other reached beneath me, sliding up my stomach to reach my sternum. “Impaling the thorax anterior, directionally right of the insect’s midline.”

“And if I were a bee?” I asked. His finger moved to the edge of my right shoulder blade and crossed onto the flesh of my breast.

“Through thorax at base of forewing.”

I turned back to face him. “But you don’t collect bees or grasshoppers.”

He cleared his throat. “For beetles the pin needs to exit near the metathorax.” He felt beneath my ribs on the right side. “This is about where your third set of legs would connect to your abdomen. If you were a giant beetle.”

I pulled him to me and imagined how carefully, how perfectly each part of me would be admired, were he to add me to his collection. At times throughout the night, looking at the beetles crawling behind lit glass, it was hard not to feel them on my skin. When my date fell asleep, I picked up the wet stack of gauze from the nightstand, noted how it had shaped itself to his grip, and breathed in again. This time I felt their crawling more, all over my skin—down my back, overtop my ankle.

Soon I was desperate to shake the feeling. I breathed in the gauze and imagined myself free of skin and nerve—just bones that couldn’t sense the steps of the insects. I took myself apart and in my mind placed each of the different pieces throughout his home: my collarbone stately upon on his fireplace mantle. My pelvis the centerpiece for his table.

By the fluorescent light of the bedroom cages, I imagined it sitting there at Thanksgiving dinner: my date seated at the table, a large pin sticking up through the cave of my pelvis, candles behind the wings of my coxal bone for light and shadow. His meal would be one whole cooked turkey, one fork and knife, nothing else. Perhaps he could invite a few beetles to search the table as he ate. A game of sorts: he’d have to cut his meat without looking; if a beetle got in the way of his fork, so be it. Anything he speared, brought to his lips would be eaten.

These beetles, I hoped, would smell my bone. Look for traces of me. Search each crevice of his porous wood table. Doesn’t she have to be here, somewhere? they’d think. Her pelvis is. Right there. Let me crawl on it again for another taste.

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This story appeared in Indiana Review 34.2, Winter 2012.

Maggie Su (Fiction Editor): A master of the carefully strange, Alissa Nutting unravels this tightly wound story patiently. In her dismantling of our narrator, she draws an exacting, compassionate portrait and leaves the reader with only her bones.

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Alissa Nutting is author of the novel, Tampa. Her new novel Made for Love is forthcoming from Ecco in July 2017. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Fence, BOMB, Elle, The New York Times, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College in Iowa.

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