Millions of Tiny Things
About the Writer
Brandon Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He's also currently the assistant editor of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading. He's been both a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His work has appeared in Wildness, Literary Hub, Chicago Literati, and Noble Gas Quarterly.
When Hammond was very young, he had a hard time sleeping. It felt as though there were millions of tiny things crawling around beneath his skin, and the small, small spaces that separated each of these tiny things was known to him, and so it wasn’t just that there were millions of them, but that he never felt whole, and that he felt always on the brink of dissolving. He knew that the only thing keeping him together was his ability to focus on each of those tiny spaces inside—if he fell asleep, whatever small bit of force that kept the parts of him from flying apart would vanish and he’d be torn into millions of small, small pieces. Sometimes, at night, he felt his focus slipping, could feel the tension in his body as he tried and tried to will himself whole, to keep it together. But the millions of tiny things inside of him kept moving, sliding around. It was hard to keep track of them all, and on this edge of sleep, every time, he thought that he would die. He thought that he could already feel his body going to pieces, breaking up like static, so when his eyes closed, he said goodbye to his parents, goodbye to his dog Mojo, goodbye to the trees, goodbye to his bed, goodbye to the turtles in the pond out back, goodbye to the sky, goodbye.
Sometimes, Hammond makes the mistake of telling the people he loves about this time in his life. They look at him with either pity or amusement, though there was the time that the guy rolled out of bed, put clothes on, and left Hammond’s apartment while muttering something about fucking schizo nutjob. It’s always a calculated risk to tell someone something ugly about yourself, but perhaps this isn’t the best way to describe it because Hammond does not feel shame about his boyhood. He was anxious and heady and sullen as a child. Many people are these things. That he experienced long bouts of psychosis is nothing to be ashamed of, though he has learned to conceal it from people, folding this necessary article of his being away in the way one might wear long shirts over flabby arms or keloids. It’s only on the edge of sleep, when he’s curled up with someone toward whom he is experiencing the first, fluttering uneasiness of love that he makes the mistake of telling them about the times as a child he thought he’d dissolve in the middle of the night. There is always a moment of hesitation, when they aren’t sure if he’s joking or telling the truth, that he realizes is a minor kindness extended toward him, a moment in which he can take it all back and explain it away as a bad joke. It’s a fleeting, narrow possibility into which he could wedge himself and live out the rest of his time. “Oh,” he could say, “just kidding.” But he never takes the moment, never takes it all back. It is what it is, he figures. He is what he is, he figures.
He does not have trouble sleeping anymore—no, that’s not quite it either. He does have trouble sleeping, but it is a trouble of a different kind. It isn’t that he feels as though he’ll be torn apart by small, small spaces going bigger and bigger. Hammond has trouble sleeping now in his adult life because he can feel himself shrinking, contracting. The edges of his body are growing closer and closer together, and his skin is puckering, wrinkling, shriveling up. But when he gets up in the middle of the night to check his face or arms, he finds no actual evidence. In the harsh light of his bathroom, he sees his pupils dilate and contract, dilate and contract, as if breathing. His pores are enormous and dark and clogged. There’s a sheen of sweat covering his face—and though he’s modest, he isn’t ashamed to say that he’s okay looking, fair skin with very dark hair, a good nose, friendly face, full lips, kind and young looking—and he opens his mouth and in the back of his throat he thinks he glimpses a set of eyes that are like his eyes, very blue, very pale, but instead of calm and bewildered anxiety he sees in this second set of eyes a wild and shuddering fear. It’s not real of course, this second set of eyes so like his own, the ones in his face, but he can’t help but to feel that they’re telling some of the real truth. He has to do this, three or four times a night, run to the bathroom to make sure he isn’t shrinking, crunching down.
If someone is sleeping over, he has to explain to them why he’s getting up so often. In the beginning, when he first started having people over to his apartment overnight—for sex, for intimacy, for friendship, for love—he tried lying:
Oh, I have small bladder.
Oh, too much taco salad.
I had too much coffee.
I shouldn’t have had that ice cream.
He tried to come up with as many reasons as possible for his migration to the bathroom, and while he sensed that no one believed him, they at least had the decency not to call him on his lie. That is, until he was seeing a woman named Sylvia, who did not entertain his very bad attempts at lying.
“Why are you always going to the bathroom, Hammond?” She asked one night. She sat up in bed and had her hands crossed neatly over her lap. She looked at him with her bright, green eyes. There was nothing accusatory in her question, but the way she turned her head and the way the light fell against the side of her face gave the whole thing a rather foreboding feel. Hammond squirmed uncomfortably next to her. He sank down and shrugged.
“Oh, you know, my bladder,” he tried weakly. She pressed her lips and squinted at him.
“Your bladder is fine. We drove for five hours the other day to see my mom, and we didn’t stop once.”
“It’s only at night,” he said. His voice was getting very thin. He could feel the edges of his body starting to stiffen and pull in toward the center of himself, drawn by an invisible, super-dense core somewhere deep in his body. “My bladder shrinks at night.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said. Her hair hung down on her shoulders in messy waves. She was blond, though her eyebrows were a very rich brown color. She was pretty, and until that moment, she had always been able to make him laugh. It wasn’t that she was nice or especially gentle with him, but she had in her the necessary kindness to take a person through their discomfort, through whatever was hurting them, and show them the shiny, glittering humor trapped somewhere inside. But that night, she was empty of that kindness. Her words were hard and sharp.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, sitting up on the bed and turning toward her.
“Are you a drug-dealer?” she asked without looking at him. She stared at the dresser along the wall where their clothes had been neatly folded and put away. He saw her lip tremble just once or twice, and he leaned forward to rest a hand on her shoulder, but she pulled away. “Are you?”
“That’s an absurd question,” he said.
“Are you a prostitute?” she asked, this time her voice going shrill then soft.
“No,” he said.
“Are you seeing someone else?”
“How could that be? We’re always together.” And it was true. They were always together, and he liked it that way. He enjoyed the closeness between them, going to the farmer’s market on the weekend and buying of bunches of ripe strawberries that they then promptly forgot to make into jam and had to throw away. He liked sitting with her in the kitchen on Sunday afternoons as she made lemonade for the week. He’d lean over in his chair and stick his fingers through her belt loops while she stood at the counter, slicing lemons. The sun on his back was always wonderful and warm. The kitchen—and yes, it was small, no doubt about it—was his favorite place because it was the place where they were closest. He always felt so lucky to have someone who would make for him all manner of delicious foods. Soups and sandwiches and salads, strange and obscure fish with a variety of sauces set upon a plate in a pale rainbow of color, an array of sliced cucumbers each topped with a different cheese. She would cut watermelon cubes and spear them through with tiny strips of straw, on the end of which she’d place a shard of lime and an olive. He spent every moment he could with her, tasting her foods and the drinks she made for him.
“Not always,” she said roughly. “You aren’t always here.”
“I am here. All of the time,” he said. And he got up on his knees in front of her. He grabbed her hands and pulled her so that she would look at him. “When am I gone?”
“You go to work,” she said. “You go to work. You get up in the middle of the night.”
“You go to work too,” he said. Her eyes, which had been on his, moved away when he said this. Her mouth was making all kinds of strained shapes, as if she were chewing on something. It was true. He worked. She worked. Everyone in this city worked. You had to work if you wanted a place to live, and he enjoyed his work. She was a nanny and a private chef on alternate days, for two families that were close but unrelated. They lived in the wealthy subdivision just on the edge of town, in tall houses separated by an enormous back fence covered in crawling vines and shrubs. There was a small garden and courtyard connecting the two yards, and she went, stooping, through a small archway from one house to the next, making food for small children in one house and for adults in the other. He worked as a freelance writer. Though he could have worked anywhere, he chose to keep very strict hours in one place. He worked in a small room in the downtown branch of the library. The room had a view of the capital and its surrounding businesses and homes. He enjoyed being surrounded by glass and air and nothing else. There were many tables in the room in which he worked, but the room was in a wing of the library that extended out several feet from the main building, and seemed to be floating in midair. It made people uneasy, and Hammond, surprisingly, was unbothered by this.
But yes, he worked. The times that they were apart were governed by work. They were in contact though, text messages and emails flowing across the city and reaching the other. He was fond of her little missives, barbed and a little prickly:
Jonah is eating boogers again—real genius here.
Lucia is definitely gay. I don’t care if she’s eight.
The Dad keeps staring at my ass. The Mom too. This place, my God.
Dad#2 hates asparagus. Spoiler: I hate his face. Guess what’s for dinner.
His own messages were, he had to admit, kind of dull, but he meant them:
I mean—but if she is, she is.
They have great taste, haha.
You make the best asparagus.
His writing tended to be just as dull, which was why he stuck to topics where dullness could be misconstrued for irony. Recently, he had written a piece about lentil soup, and the piece had gone viral on a small social media site specializing in foods largely because the internet had a way of inflecting everything with an ironical edge. The lentil soup in question had been very delicious. He had written about the way Sylvia prepared it, starting with the morning they’d gone out to the farmer’s market to purchase the lentils. He was proud of that piece, and Sylvia had given him a small kiss, laughing. She liked his writing. She liked his work. He felt, now that she was accusing him of something ugly because of it, a twinge of betrayal. He gripped her hands more tightly.
“I don’t say anything about the way that creepy Dad keeps staring at your ass. I don’t say anything about how he clearly wants to fuck you. I don’t say anything about how you keep bringing up that he wants to fuck you, or his money, do I? Do I?”
“And why don’t you?” She said this sharply and pulled her hands from him. She folded her arms across her knees and gave him a look of pointed, angry firmness.
“Because you’re working,” he said, sighing. “Because it’s just work. That’s what it is when you go there to be with their family. That’s what it is when I go to the library and I’m not with you. If I’m not with you, it’s because of work.”
“Then what are you doing in the bathroom every night?”
“My bladder!” he shouted a little hysterically. “My bladder is small at night.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said. Hammond ran his hands roughly through his hair and he made a sound like a kettle whistling. “I don’t believe you,” she said again and again.
“I don’t know what to say!” He climbed out of bed and paced back and forth between the bed and the dresser. He was hot all over. His skin felt two-sizes too small already. He needed to go to the bathroom to make sure that he wasn’t shrinking. Already, he felt closer to the ground than he had before. His whole body felt stiff and hard. “I don’t know what to say!” he said again and again.
He stopped and glanced toward the bathroom.
“If I leave my phone here,” he said. “Will that make you feel better?”
“Just go,” she said. He looked at her and saw that she was lying back against the pillow, her arm thrown across her face. “Just go to the fucking bathroom.”
Hammond let out a high-pitched whistle of frustration and stomped along to the bathroom. He shook his head several times as he stepped into the bright light. He braced his hand against the sink and leaned in close to the mirror. His reflection loomed large over him. He saw the enormous gaps of his nostrils, the long, unfettered terrain of his cheeks and the splotchy spaces beneath his eyes. There were his gums, slick and red nestled up against large, white teeth. His eyes too, were there in his face, not in his throat. He pulled down the neck of his shirt and saw his chest and his shoulders. Everything in proper proportion. The feeling of his skin crawling up his back like a shirt growing too small eased. He felt himself expanding, opening, getting larger and larger. He sighed. He could breathe again.
“What are you doing?” came a voice from the open door, and Hammond jumped, slipped against the sink and banged his wrist against the faucet.
“Ah,” he cried. “Ah!” The pain was not immense. It was braided heat along the bones of his wrist, and he rubbed at it as he came from the bathroom. “Nothing!”
“You were just in there squeezed against the mirror, Hammond,” Sylvia said dryly. “What were you doing?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I was just looking in the mirror.” He sank on the bed and rubbed at his wrist. He wanted to go to sleep.
“Why what, Sylvia?”
“Why were you in there doing what you were doing?”
“I felt like I had something on my face,” he said.
“I don’t know—I checked. There was nothing there.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing is wrong with me,” he said, but she was looking at him with wet eyes. Tears clung to the tips of her long eyelashes, and he wanted to reach out for her. “Sylvia, stop this, come on.” He did reach for her, with his good hand. He touched her shoulder, and she recoiled.
“What is happening to you?” She asked.
“Nothing,” he said, and his voice was reedy and bright and on the edge of fraying. “Nothing is wrong with me.”
“Then why were you doing that in the mirror?”
“What was I doing that was so bad,” he snapped. “What was I doing that I need to explain to you?”
“You looked totally fucking nuts,” she said.
“Don’t,” he said. Now there were tears in his eyes. Now, there was a heat in the back of his throat. “Don’t say that.”
“That you looked nuts? You did.”
“Don’t say that,” he repeated, and his voice was so quiet he didn’t know if she heard him, because she didn’t look at him like she had heard him. She looked at him like at any moment he was going to unravel before her very eyes.