Morgan Stone was born with a hole in her middle: a perfectly smooth, sealed, fist-sized chunk of nothing near her belly button. After seventeen years of hiding behind lumpy sweaters and a smart mouth, she decides to bare all. At first she feels liberated…until a few online photos snowball into a media frenzy. Now Morgan is desperate to return to her own strange version of normal—when only her doctors, her divorced parents, and her best friend, Caro, knew the truth.
Then a new doctor appears with a boy who may be both Morgan’s cure and her destiny. But what happens when you meet the person who is—literally—your perfect match? Is being whole really all it’s cracked up to be?
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Here are the options for a girl like me:
Option A: Not mention it on the first date, or the second or third. We get to know each other, laugh, accidentally-on-purpose brush each other’s shoulders. We go to a movie and say stupid things during the dramatic scenes, and I look over and notice that you’re crying, and you look over and notice me noticing you crying, and we both pretend not to notice that the other person is noticing these things, but you take my hand, quietly and gratefully.
A fondness begins to well. A language begins to form, a gauze-webbed network of inside jokes. We text each other and are paralyzed with terror from the moment we hit send until the phone buzzes back and our hearts start to beat again. Our friends get sick of us. The world takes on a brightness that it only does for the specially loved. I start to wonder if you are The One, and I can see, gleaming in your eyes, the kernel of the notion that I am The One, too.
At some point you want to take the next step. The Big Step. Maybe we are at your house; maybe your parents are out of town; maybe you make some dumb excuse about showing me something in your bedroom and I say something witty like “Okay,” and my heart is pounding, and I don’t know how to speak, and it’s not until you close the door behind us with a faint click that I can say,
“Um, Hypothetical Person?”
And you, running your hands down my sides hazily, fingers curling up through my blouse, murmur into my hair, “Mmm?”
“There’s something I have to tell you,” I say.
I lift up my shirt and you see it. It is egg shaped, the Hole: an imperfect oblong just to the lower right of my navel, about the size of a peach or a fist. It is perfectly smooth, sealed: a toroid tunnel of white skin. Peering through it, you can see the room behind me. You can read the titles on the bookshelf.
“Whoa,” you say.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Holy shit,” you say.
“Yep,” I say.
“Does it hurt?” you say.
“No,” I say.
“What happened?” you say.
“Nothing,” I say. “I don’t know. I was born with it.”
And this is the moment I lose you.
Option B: I tell you up front.
“I’m that semi-cute, flat-chested girl who makes fun of your groceries at the local food co-op. I bike and paint and make up nicknames for people I’ll probably never work up the nerve to talk to; I’m a nightmare only child of a nightmare single mom; also, I have a giant, hermetically sealed hole in my torso that you could stick a fist through. Seventeen, nonsmoker, INTJ.”
I don’t get many takers.
My best friend Caroline sprawls over the edge of my bed, upside down, pulling plastic-wrapped pastries one by one from a white paper bag. It’s barely 9 a.m., but her delicate skin is flushed from biking home in the punishing North Carolina August heat, her hair a matted blond mess of sweat and flyaways. She’s stopped back at our apartment between her morning shift at Java Jane and our class’s pre–senior year kickoff beach party. I say “our” because it’s our senior year, not our party. Very few things are my party. Social-gatherings-of-everyone-I’ve-known-since-prepubescence-and-am-a-mere-180-days-away-from-escaping-forever are indubitably not my party.
“It’s not too late for you to come, you know,” Caro says. “We could sneak you onto the bus. Emmeline’s dad does construction—we’ll build a wooden horse, Odysseus-style. Or tie you to the bottom of a sheep.”
“Or just tie me to Emmeline.”
Caro eyes me.
“Because she’s a sheep.”
Caro sticks her tongue out at me, upside down. Her mother tried for years to push her into gymnastics, trapeze, space camp, but Caro wasn’t interested. “I don’t want to make being upside down a job,” she said at age nine, dangling from the sofa with her hands on her chubby hips. “I just like the way it makes my face feel.”
I love 387 million things about Caro, including this, but it is still not compelling enough for me to spend all day on a school-sponsored beach trip, hunched in a huge T-shirt while people I had pre-algebra with cavort half-naked in the water.
Caro sighs and stops unpacking pastries.
“I wish you were coming,” she says. “It’s only eight hours, and I want you to hang out with me. Me, your best friend, Caroline, who you love the most.”
“I do love you the most, but that is still eight more hours than it’s physically possible to have fun at a beach.” I flop on the bed beside her, letting my head dangle toward the unvacuumed carpet. “This is a principle upon which my universe operates, Caro. Therefore, in the unlikely chance I did have fun, I would explode out of sheer cognitive dissonance.” She opens her mouth, and I say, “Besides, Todd’s coming. I don’t want to be a third wheel.”
“You’re never a third wheel,” Caro protests. “Todd loves you.”
I love 387 million and one things about Caro, including this: she genuinely believes nice and absurd things.
We survey my upside-down bedroom in silence: the hamburger-shaped beanbag chair, the sketches taped up amid the art prints I scrounged from Goodwill, the precarious tower of cereal bowls in the corner. Deep in my body, my quiet spine uncurls.
“What if,” Caro says, “you came and spontaneously combusted from fun but timed it with the music so that it was the most epic beat drop of all time?”
“Tempting,” I muse. “But I’d probably still somehow end up with sand in my butt crack, so pass.”
Caro begins sorting the day-old pastries onto our stomachs by feel: three muffins, a broken cookie, a pile of unloved scones. “Morgs, you won’t third-wheel forever,” she says. “There’s someone out there who’s a perfect match for you.”
“How hard did you hit your head just now? You know, when you fell off topic?”
She ignores me. “I’m just saying. A little optimism never killed anybody.”
I don’t respond. One of the awkward things about being permasingle is how it makes other people feel bad for you. I mean, sure. Sometimes when I go the long way around to avoid the makeout stairwell at school, or when I see happy couples on billboards advertising Mentos or whatever, I get this little aching twinge, sneeze-quick. The word oh. Just that. As in, Oh, wouldn’t it be nice. But it usually fades pretty fast. The thing is, I like me. I’ve been me my whole life, and I’m going to keep on doing it. So why not?
Caro’s phone chimes and she spills herself upward, hair and crumbs curling onto my duvet. “Okay, Miss Too-Cool-for-Back-to-School,” she says brightly. “How about this: YYS is playing an anti–back-to-school party tonight off Gorman Street. Morgs, this is perfect! Come to this. You have to come to this. I promise, it won’t be any fun at all.”
I groan. Yum Yum Situation is a local college band. Specifically, Caro’s extremely boring boyfriend Todd’s local college band. They’re NC State students who specialize in power pop songs with atonal bass lines and tortured, insightful lyrics like, “It’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the—oh-oh!” Every other week they play some hipster house party, and every other week I end up in a corner with somebody’s drunk girlfriend telling me how much she loves her drunk boyfriend, and counting the minutes until I can go home.
“You know what my kind of party is?” I ask, hopefully. “The staying-at-home kind of party.”
Caro snorts and bumps me with her hip. A muffin rolls off of her stomach and slides into the well where my black T-shirt stretches taut over the Hole.
“Dear Morgs, kindly come to this party because you’re getting that glassy, I-haven’t-interacted-with-humans-in-three-days look in your eye. Love, Caroline.”
“Dear Caroline,” I say, “I’ve interacted with, like, four humans already today.”
“PS: not counting me.”
“Not counting your mother calling to yell at you about getting your shit together.”
“In my defense,” I say, “she counts as at least sixteen people.”
Caro checks her watch. “I’ve got to go. I promised Angela I’d sit with her on the bus.” She points to my forehead. “Party. Think about it.”
“Thinking,” I say. “Bye.”
I lie on the bed for a long time after the door clicks shut, ears ringing in the sudden hush. Our empty apartment smells of turpentine, hollow and gray. Outside, the traffic sounds of Hillsborough Street thrum through the August afternoon like the pulse of the life I’m not quite living.
I push myself upright, brushing away crumbs. It may be two days before senior year, and everyone else is loading up on school supplies and wondering if their crush will notice them this year and saying to one another, We’re seniors, I can’t believe we’re finally seniors, but there are some principles upon which my physical universe operates, and here is another: while everyone goes to the beach, I drive to the medical clinic, alone, so the people paid to care can verify that I haven’t collapsed.
For an introvert, my social calendar is actually packed. See: Liaisons with old men in lab coats. Hot dates with cold exam tables. I have a pulmonologist, a cardiologist, a dermatologist, a rad feminist gynecologist, a renal specialist, a radiologist, a phlebotomist, a chiropractor and a host of wisecracking x-ray technicians, not to mention a general practitioner.
The Hole is nestled below and to the right of my navel. Its lip is soft and rubbery, lined with smooth, hairless flesh, and my organs have shifted neatly up and down and to the left, rearranged around the absence at my core. We tried for years to make me whole. The records live in a hushed drawer in one of Mother’s offices, eighteen separate counts of failure and disappointment. The doctors took grafts from my buttocks, from Mother’s, from anonymous donors who, I realized upon passing my driving test at sixteen and ticking the organ donor box, had probably died on highways, whole and healthy blood gushing out onto distant asphalt. But each time the implanted flesh shrank from mine, drawing thin and translucent around the edges. I found dead transplants shriveled in my bed sheets; they dropped with flaccid glops to the floor of the shower, quivering like jellyfish on the drain. About a year or so ago, Mother threw up her hands. Something something wait until technology something adolescence something. Which, to be honest, is fine with me. Have you ever been sick? Like, really sick? Like, long-term, mysterious, nobody-can-tell-you-why-or-how-you-might-get-better-or-if-that’s-even-a-possibility sick?
If you haven’t, I’ll tell you, it’s like this:
Imagine you’re balancing on a tightrope. Tugging on one of your hands, threatening to knock you off-balance and into the abyss, is hope.
Tugging your other hand is despair.
Waiting at the other end of the tightrope is the semblance of a normal life.
You have to get up every morning and walk that tightrope, end to end. You might have doctors shouting, “We found a new omega-17 vitamin that accelerated discrete tissue growth in fruit flies, and we think it could cure your . . .” and you might have a little kid in the grocery store point at you and ask loudly, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that girl?” and if you give in to any of them, if you listen for even half a second, you’ll fall straight down into hopelessness or heartbreaking hope, and it could take you a week to get up again.
The only way to make it to the end of every day is to give zero fucks.
Which is good, because I’m seventeen, and I’ve just about run out.