TO THE TOUCH
“To The Touch” was published in the 2020 edition of Jelly Bucket Literary Journal under the pseudonym Gina Urban. That year it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This story grew out of a vision I had of a young woman touching a sheet of glass gently only to watch it shatter under her palm. If the story is an allegory, it is incidentally so. Or maybe subconsciously so.
Sometimes she holds a fingertip to the glass. Sometimes a palm. Once her tongue that had touched Philip’s tongue. A vascular network formed by the transfusion of blood from liquid body to vitreous solid.
Grace touches. Glass shatters. She bleeds. It bleeds.
Whispering, whispering glass. Running, spreading, veining out, splintering. Verticillating.
When Grace writes her origin story, she will begin with the first time she turned one piece of glass into millions.
Three-year-old Gracie toddled about the house, a miniature explorer on bowed legs. Precautions had been taken: every outlet plugged, every corner padded, every drawer and cabinet clipped closed. The mother told a visiting friend, “If you want to know how dangerous your house is, have a kid.”
The coffee table was an estate sale find. Sixteen square feet of plate glass sitting atop a woven wooden surface. At first the mother thought something had fallen, broken the glass with force. This was not the case. Gracie’s eight tiny fingers not even two inches in length, lifted up her tiny body. She held to the wooden frame, but when the infinitesimal tips of those fingers met with the glass—consummation. A tink. A crinkle. The whispers of cracking glass formed reticulate patterns. No one but Gracie noticed until gravity added its force and glass rained down, taking coffee cups, saucers, spoons and a pair of reading glasses with it.
“No one was hurt,” the mother told friends and family.
A drinking glass came next, and Grace was hurt. Five stitches. “Maybe she’s not ready for a big girl glass,” the mother said.
The explosion of the sliding glass door scared the dog. Probably the cold temperatures outside meeting the warmth from the living room, the father hypothesized. “You see,” he said. “Glass is not elastic. The expansion—” but no one was listening. Wheel of Fortune was on.
One can experience a phenomenon for years without understanding its cause. And so it was with the mother and father.
Grace knew, of course. The glass breaks because Grace’s touch wills it to. “POW-er,” she says, finger extended like the barrel of a gun.
She will write about a car. A ride. A mother.
She had been riding in cars all of her life, but the bulky carseat kept her out of the window’s reach. When she finally touched the glass, the truck driving behind them was suddenly showered with shards.
Grace had wanted to follow the streams of rain with her finger. The rain was pelting her face now.
Perhaps it was a pebble, a screw, an existing fracture opening its mouth. But when the mother pulled over to the side of the road to tape a garbage bag to the doorframe, she watched Grace climb into the front seat and disapparate another window effortlessly.
The father, an engineer, had to experiment. “Give her something.”
His benevolent commands were met with reticence: “Fine.”
She adores experimenting now. A store window. A dressing room mirror. A wine bottle. A discarded pair of glasses. Each is distinct in sound and speed of splinter: Clink. Chink. Tink. Tchink. Tchrk. Krrrrk. Perhaps her memoir will be a comic book. Panel 1–A single finger placed in just the right spot creates an isobilateral configuration. A transparent leaf forming from virum conlidam.
She wonders if placing her palm flat on a horizontal plane of mirror will create a mirror of palmar creases. She could be an artist like Philip. Mirror, mirror, on the floor. So far, the glass rejects her plans.
She has grown used to rejection though. Not because of her condition. Because of her personality. Because of her face. “Grace Face” the kids at school called it. New students would wonder aloud why she was sneering at them. “That’s Grace Face,” they’d say, screwing up their own faces like funhouse mirror reflections.
She often tried to flatten her affect, soften it even, but this felt unnatural, and her face worked itself back into what the mother called her “ugly face.” The mother had been popular. Photos of cheerleading tournaments and proms and tailgate parties seemed to prove it. If only Grace had tried harder, made friends, dressed like a lady.
In response to her mother’s advice, mirrors shattered in bathroom sinks like bowls of precious stones. “You can go without a mirror then, young lady,” the father said. “This behavior will not be tolerated.”
When the principal came over the intercom to announce that the vandalism in the girls’ bathroom would not be tolerated, Grace had been eyeing a compact that one of the Montana’s was using to apply mascara. Mirrors were her favorite victims.
She keeps her own mirror behind clear plastic just in case. Self-control is a luxury for the powerful.
Perhaps her memoir will have an entire chapter titled “Experiments.”
Vena, vena, venipuncture. A glass-topped table. A pair of her father’s work gloves. Hefting the glass up the stairs to her bed. Doffing of clothes. An experiment: could Grace lie down on the glass and shatter it with her body? And would the glass give her the gift of a back of vermiculate scars?
She lay upon the cold glass, and while her body erupted in goose flesh, there was no ping, no tinkle, no whisper of tiny earthquakes. Had she lost her power? In her supine position, she pounded on the glass, but it only returned a dull concussive thud.
The gloves. She was still wearing the gloves. She shook them from her hands and laid them flat at her sides. The whole pane of glass gave out from beneath her, sending electrical pulses throughout the whole of her body. She writhed in orgasm, the tesserae working themselves into her flesh. Plate glass does not shatter, but forms a mosaic ghost of its former self. This mosaic was embedded into Grace, who breathed as deeply as ever she had.
It wasn’t until the blood-soaked sheets began to cool and dry that she wondered what she would do next.
Then she did nothing. She slept.
When she sleeps, she dreams of Philip whom she doesn’t need.
At 17, Grace met Philip at Turning the Corner, a residential treatment center the mother found in the back of one of her magazines. “She has glass issues,” the mother told the intake nurse. Philip too had a glass issue. He liked to dig it into his skin and use the glistening shards to carve into his bedroom drywall. He had created a brilliant sanguine landscape before he lost too much blood. His parents hadn’t even taken a photograph before they had the wall cleaned and painted.
She told him about her climax on a bed of broken glass. He told her that every slice bolstered his erection.
She broke a mirror. He painted her portrait on a pillowcase.
She led him to the therapeutic greenhouse, but when she held a finger to the wall, the glass responded by doing nothing. She tried again, this time with her flattened palm. The window fogged underneath. She pulled her other hand from his and tink-crinkle-whisper. Running, spreading, veining out, splintering. Tinkle. Ring. “Reticulating,” she said. “Verticillating.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said Philip.
Grace took hold of his hand again and touched the adjacent pane. Cold resistance. She let go. Resistant no longer.
Group therapy brought together the cutters, bleeders, scrapers, biters, and pokers. They were all destroyers. Not a creator among them save Philip and herself.
Philip discovered watercolors and Grace’s vagina. As they curled together on her twin bed, he traced his fingers along the crisscrossed scars on her back.
“Why do you think—“
“Because we’re meant for each other,” Philip interrupted.
He asked her not to leave him.
As Grace slept, she dreamed of delicate stemware.
The mother and father came to visit Turning the Corner, and Grace told them she was in love — that, like in a fairy tale, his touch had cured her.
“Good,” said the father, “because our insurance has run out.”
Phillip promised to send watercolors without any blood in them. Grace promised to avoid glass until she saw him again.
Playing the role of afflicted Disney princess, Grace pulled white garden gloves onto her hands. On a shopping trip with the mother, she bought a novelty glass pen. The boutique owner called it a showpiece.
Grace wrote to Phillip daily, her words fueled by infatuation and hope. Phillip returned words in kind: “I love you so much”; “I can’t wait to be with you”; “We were meant for each other.” Cliches of cliches that boys think they have invented.
“Meant for each other?” the mother asked. “Sounds serious.” She said she’d confer with the father, have an adult conversation, determine the best course of action. Was inviting their daughter’s suicidal boyfriend to live with them in the best interest of all parties? After all, look where they met.
The possibility of living in a house where one didn’t have to always wear shoes to protect their feet from broken glass? The mother drew up a contract. Separate bedrooms. Side hugs only. No kissing. This would not be one of those situations. They would not be one of those families.
In anticipation of Phillip’s arrival, Grace walked to the school district bus garage where she conducted a symphony lying on her belly atop each bus. Arms stretched down, fingers splayed. Beethoven’s 9th—which the mother played when preparing legal briefs. Hand over hand. Bum bum bum bum against metal. Then a combination of fingers and palms, sweeps and swats. Blood pressure rising, pulse quickening, streams of electricity rushing from toes to temples. Ten busses, and not even a scratch on her.
She walked home warm and wet.
Kneeling knee to knee on the sofa, parents asleep upstairs, Grace and Phillip made a bloodless pact.
Grace knows she knew.
Who was this boy with Grace, and why was Grace Face smiling? “It’s nice to have you back, Grace.” Ms. Potts eyed their hands with supercilious skepticism. A girl Grace once knew asked, “Do you really have a doctor’s note to hold hands?”
Grace’s television screen isn’t made of glass. When she sees an actor who looks like Philip, she turns it off the old fashioned way.
“Shatter, shatter on the floor/ Phillip’s touch and crack no more.” She wrote adorable poems in her journal. Dotted the I’s with hearts and flowers. Gave the O’s wide smiling mouths. In the margins: “Pretend this is what you want.”
“I don’t even think about cutting myself anymore,” Phillip said, rolling off of Grace, his limp condom hanging out of her.
And his breath began to smell of batteries. And his palms were moist. And his toenails needed trimming. And was his chin always so weak? And. And. And. He held her hand too tightly, for too long.
“I need to be alone,” said Grace. “Just for a while.”
“But you can’t,” he said. “You know how you are.”
“For an hour,” she said.
“But what about me?” asked Philip. “I need you, and you need me.”
What is a need, anyway? Something with which one cannot live. So when Grace pulled away and Philip repeated that she needed him, she proved him wrong by continuing to breathe. She breathed her way out the door, down the street, into town to an antique shop sure to have glass curios.
On the second floor, away from the owner, Grace found a cabinet of glass birds just small enough to fit in her palm, to close her fingers around, to pulverize.
“Little birdie in my hand, shatter, splinter, turn to sand.”
Grace was pleased with her song, with the colorful crystals raining from her palm. The silence of it all.
“I’ll name you Philip,” she said, reaching for a bluebird.
But as her fingers set in motion the metamorphosis from solid mass to s—
A hand on her arm. A “stop” in her ears. Bluebird daggers embedded in her palm.
“I’m sorry,” said Philip, “But you can’t do that.” He opened her hand wide to pick out the glass shards.
“No,” she said. “Leave it.”
Glass figurines are such a treat. They dissolve instantly in Grace’s hand. She’ll write a chapter titled, “The Glass Menagerie.”
She could only focus on his front teeth, turned in ever-so-slightly like French doors that wouldn’t quite latch. She heard words like “can’t” and “must” and “shouldn’t”; “love” and “need” and “forever.” She wished teeth were made of glass. But even if they were, she couldn’t do harm to him.
He touched her chin and lifted it so their eyes met. He was crying. While she fantasized about touching his teeth, he had been crying. He did love her, and he did want to help her. He had meant what he said, even if she had only been half listening. The scars on her back began to itch and, as if sensing her discomfort, Philip rubbed her back.
Grace does not wear gloves. She draws his face on a mirror and licks it, only her tongue holds no power over glass. A single poke and she tastes blood. But Philip is no hero, no archnemesis. If shaped properly, though, he could be.
Her hand wasn’t bleeding. Wasn’t scabbed. Wasn’t scarred. Wasn’t soft. She couldn’t feel her hand. Perhaps she had damaged a nerve.
Then her wrist.
Fingernails designed by Waterford.
“I’m turning into glass,” she told the mother.
“Please don’t tell anyone.”
“I’m turning into glass,” she told the father.
“I’m turning into glass,” she confessed to Philip.
“And you think it’s my fault?”
She lay in bed that night, suffocating under his furnace of a body.
When she awoke, she was startled by the dried blood on her pillow. The blood-dyed slivers of glass tears puddled on her sheet. As she touched them, she saw her translucent fingertips.
She returned to her journal:
A girl who can break glass with a touch.
A girl who is turning into glass.
A girl who cries tears of glass.
Type it. Copy it. Paste it again and again until there are no tears.
“You’re killing me,” she told Philip.
“I’m protecting you,” he said.
“You’re repressing my power.”
“I’m turning to glass.”
“Look at my hands.”
“I don’t see anything.”
She told him he had to go. He said blah blah blah no no whine whine plead whimper.
She told the parents he kept coming into her room at night. Showed them the used condoms from her wastebasket.
“You broke the contract,” the mother said.
“At least they used condoms,” the father said.
Grace destroyed the glass pen in her pocket as Philip called his parents to come get him.
He left her one last gift: a self-portrait painted in blood on the wall of the guest room. She felt the stickiness of it, and examining the blood on her fingertips, she noticed that she couldn’t see through them anymore.
She wanted to turn more glass birds to powder.
“What happened to your boyfriend,” asked a girl at school.
“He looked at my face and turned to stone,” said Grace.
The principal would need to make another announcement about broken bathroom mirrors.
Graduation. No more Philips. No more mothers. No more fathers. A lair. Grace would need a lair.
She settles for an apartment and a job at a boutique mattress distribution center. Grace is a little disappointed that she didn’t become a supervillain with a clear vinyl suit and fingerless gloves.
She lies in bed projecting her fantasies onto the ceiling:
The Apple store in New York. Chhhhhrrrk
The glass pyramid of the Louvre. Tsssk
The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Tktktktktk
The Willis Tower observation deck. Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!
She knows, however, that her power is bolstered by her choice not to become Shatterella.
It’s a great name. That will be the title of her memoir.
The parents are disappointed that she didn’t go to college. Packing foam mattresses is fine, though. And her YouTube channel is really taking off.
A workout shirt that Philip left at her parents’ house is the perfect material for a supervillain mask. It’s black and shiny and wicks away sweat.
She likes wearing the mask while she records herself shattering glass eyes and stained glass and collectible fast food glasses. Tink. Crinkle. Reticulating. Tinkle. Ring. Verticillating. “It’s a real word,” she tells her Internet audience.
Maybe she will visit Sainte-Chapelle.