I don’t like jokes. Jokes are sad stories that people are scared to tell, scared to be judged for. Jokes, to me, are never funny when you think about them. I haven’t heard a good joke since my first kiss.
Like when I used to call myself digitally incapable. That’s no longer funny, and, I guess, that was my childhood in a snow globe. Digitally incapable. Like I tripped a wire alarm and no one responded in time. Now I am a crime statistic. Categorized. I never felt right as a kid, like something was out of place. I didn’t even kiss someone until college and the hair-slick white-man on the TV told me I had no worth unless I got laid good and hard since I was sixteen. My mother told me I was special, but her hair didn’t look like the polished armor worn by presidents and dictators. My mother told me I painted stars into zodiac signs so people felt like they belonged to something. She meant I tried something fierce to be nice to the other kids and they were nice back. They gave me respect, I gave a good friendship. She called them ‘Sweet darlings’. I don’t agree. One of the good ones stuck gum to my scalp. That’s why I got my dad to shave my head in second grade. I was wearing a helmet back then anyway, so only pigtail-girl noticed and that’s because she stole my helmet after school and rolled it down a hill.
The joke, by the way, is that I was born without a thumb. Digitally incapable, get it? I instead had my pointer finger switched around to the front of my hand, so now I have a skinny not-thumb and three other fingers. Just my left hand, and even close people don’t notice. That isn’t why I was a loser in high school. I was a loser because when people called me a faggot or a shithead I listened. I wondered if I was supposed to be that way, the way they saw me, like I should have checked. Maybe they were on to something.
I didn’t figure anything out that way, but they still beat the right old shit out of me. They would tell me they just wanted to talk over by the football stands and it was funny, I thought, because afterwards I couldn’t stand anymore. I just sat there and breathed in the mean stinking air and traced my blossom bruises with my skinny not-thumb.
My dad threatened someone at the school, you know, to keep me from getting beat-up on. Afterwards, not before when I was scared it would happen and wanted to stay home sick. Afterwards, when I came home looking like a mishandled apple and it wasn’t my fault for once. You see, when I got my hand fixed up, I was so scared of breaking it – if I fell over I would just fall flat on my face and not use my hand to stop me because I loved that messed hand of mine. I’d get all these ethereal black-and-blue sunsets on my face and shoulders though. I once saw a dinosaur in one of them. They were slow clouds, those bruises; you could see when my life was stormy. My dad made one difference with the bullies though, and that was the storms moving to just my stomach, where they were harder to see.
Kids back then all wanted tattoos and I just wondered if I could get a tattoo of my favorite bruise, the dinosaur one that is. It looked like a Stegosaurus.
I did say I kissed someone eventually, that’s the point here. The kiss is the success, the evolution of bringing myself close enough to someone that I felt that I had proven myself a person and not a not-thumbed punching bag. Even something sweet. Not good, but sweet. Sweet like I was shaken until my stomach was falling snow. They get scary as you get older, first kisses, but I wasn’t thinking about first kisses. When I got older I learned to use my hand to keep myself from falling over, and then I could stop wearing the helmet. My mother and dad had me wear it when they saw I was getting so hurt. Some teacher at the school was even worried that my parents put a hand to me. I told the social worker, no, they are good parents, and mother said that was the right thing to say. The truth that is. I guess she was worried that I wasn’t going to be serious about what was going on, but I knew. I knew my mother looked a choice sadness when the social worker talked to her. Like somehow he was on to something and she would have to go home and try smacking me around a little, just to check. It was the social worker’s job to be scary, to scare people into healing. He must have called other kids names in school in his day, but was thoughtful about it.
When I went to college my parents were crying the whole way. They looked foreign about it, like some surreal indie film missing the translations. I knew everything I said was switched around; they were so caught up in their messed-up loser boy going to school, like I passed the test to be a person, their test at least. My uncle never went to college and when I saw him at Thanksgiving that year he was very nice about it, very interested. I wondered if he wished he could be mean about it.
I had three friends that year, three good ones. I had Kayden, the guy from calculus with the tides of product in his hair; Mitchell, my roommate; and Gus. Gus, I don’t know where I knew that man from but he was real close with the Frisbee team. He once got hit right in the eye, you know. Like right at his first practice. They called him Cyborg Gus after that, like his bright red eye was a laser. They would have him dress up with metal and plastic bits to freak out the other team. He went along with it too. I don’t know how he felt about it, they looked like they were using him, using him like I used canvas stretchers.
My friend Kayden had the moral center of a Tootsie Pop. When I say that I mean he likes biting in bed, and by that I mean he was too mean to know seriously. You can’t just listen to his caustic chewing and think you were on the winning side. Kayden couldn’t stand idiots, but he would say this disrespectful nonsense all the time to everyone, even those he was close to, and sounded more idiotic than anyone else. I think I was friends with him because, if he did talk smack about me, it was never to my face. He never once turned to me and told me how I was a product, or a caveman, or an automaton.
That was my favorite, automaton. Lonely machines. Everyone’s an automaton, even Kayden. The funniest part is that every automaton wonders what it would be like to feel, to reach the end of their journey and find love. The big screen plot arc is that they can feel and hate and love in just the right ways, because there is no test for the wrong. We are each that robot, and we are all just as surprised. Just as surprised and unable to handle processing the feelings that we blame on our hearts because we are scared to admit it’s because of our heads.
Digitally incapable. Get it?
Mitchell, my roommate, he would have laughed at that. He was a sweet guy, the kind I would have let put gum in my hair. And if he knew that that was okay, he still wouldn’t have. He wasn’t just a good one, he was a great one. Like he had that right kind of smile when he said things were okay. It was a lot easier to come back and say hi to him before tucking myself in and staring at the ceiling. I had started painting, and all I would paint to feel okay were bruises, and if I couldn’t reach a pigment Mitchell made my fossil bones feel alive and okay. Feel okay, like when Kayden would say his hate and judgment and I would twirl a pencil around my skinny not-thumb wondering why no one ever made fun of the actual thing that was wrong with me. Like when I had a checkup for my kidney and they said it wasn’t doing so well, but I figured I wasn’t alone. No one could call up my body and threaten it to stop bullying me, scare it into healing, but my friends were good helmets. I was so scared though I wanted to curl up and not stand before the world. I didn’t want to be pulled out of school. I didn’t want people wondering if I wanted to be mean to educated people.
I talked to Kayden and he said the health system was a bag of dicks and how doctors were leprosy profiteers. I looked at him and thought that he was like a radio show on repeat, telling people what they were worth every day but the market never shifted. I didn’t tell him because I thought that might screw up his style, like if he thought I was right and tuned in with the rest of the world, just to check.
I ditched him and didn’t see Gus, who I bet would have wandered the hill behind the football stands with me and made me feel solid about my kidney, but since he was out at another school dressed up in his outfit he didn’t. Instead I was back in my room and Mitchell was there and he was right on and listened to my dumb stories, like about pigtail-girl and the social worker and my uncle. I let him play with my skinny not-thumb, and I drew a picture of the Stegosaurus bruise. Then I guess the real trick is when I pulled out my calculus homework that Kayden would never sit down to work on with me, and Mitchell was some merciful genius and a stand-up gentleman and he helped me with my homework. But I couldn’t pay attention because right there, right then, I loved that guy. I just couldn’t get past the part where he made me feel like I wasn’t a crime statistic, like I could paint stars. Mitchell then looked at me with that traceable smile and asked if I could even do math at all. He called me digitally incapable and laughed. I laughed too, then I kissed him. He sat still for a moment and left the room, and that is fine.
Sweet darling, he never spoke about it again. It wasn’t his test, as he had nothing to check. Digitally incapable isn’t an inside joke, and not why I want this tattoo, right here, along my left arm. It is because it is me in a snow globe, shaken around and rolled down a hill, reconfigured and reprogrammed, judged and judgmental. I can’t imagine a more perfect title for my skin or my storms. Maybe it is even a little funny how perfect it is.
A resident of the Hudson Valley, Jono Naito juggles his time between chemistry, writing and non-profit work in education. His work has previously appeared online, and in print in Bard College’s Lux Literary Magazine. He prefers his grilled cheese sandwiches come with avocado.