• Anachronisms

    Olivia Nathan

    Winter 2024

    The night before her history test, T’s legs turned into lightbulbs.

    Hoot, the family Pomeranian, had been sitting beneath her desk, and T accidentally kicked him as she crossed her legs. In a show of defiance, he left her room and trotted downstairs. T didn’t notice. She forgot the new purplish pimple forming like a grape on her forehead; she forgot the allotted forty minutes of TV she’d been dying to watch; she even forgot to look up at her face smeared in the window beside her desk to contemplate her crush kissing it, though the ache of that longing never left her. As she slipped into bed, each flash card she’d studied after dinner was still moving behind her eyes. Her mind had been consumed by the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was as if the fire itself had invaded her mind and left it razed and scorched.

    Doing better in history was high on T’s list of New Year’s resolutions. It was near the top of a list her parents oversaw, regularly reminding her to practice clarinet every day and to make more lists. They had thwacked the list to the fridge with a magnet that said queen of fucking everything that Queenie, T’s older sister, had left at home when she moved to college. T thought of it as the only remnant of Queenie left in the house. The pink bedroom, which sat empty across from hers, did not recall her sister’s dry and crass sense of humor, nor did the trio of Hello Kitty clocks tocking on her wall.

    So T had no choice but to get a B+ or A- on the test. Her parents couldn’t understand why she wasn’t already getting B+s or A-s, given T loved the subject.

    “We don’t understand why you’re not getting B+s or A-s,” they said. “You love history.”

    This was true. T had spent the month of July on her laptop, watching a lecture series called The History and Mystery of Venetian Watermarks from The Great Courses. (She looked up what watermarks were and then she Googled what Italian iconography meant.) She was quickly consumed by the eight-part lecture series, given by a surprisingly handsome, long-haired professor.

    Many of the Venetian watermarks looked like horse brandings or ancient family crests; but one, dated as early as 1500, looked like a lightbulb—a watery lightbulb pressed into the middle of the page, crushing the fibers of parchment to allow light to stream through. T had watched the watermark illuminated by candlelight in the reenactment; it shone through where the paper thinned down its curves. How did sixteenth-century Italians know what a lightbulb would look like? There were even undulating lines in the watermark signifying the metal foot and both sides of the bulb were chubby-cheeked.

    During some of the lectures, T daydreamed. She leaned back in her desk chair, thinking about her ninth-grade crush, who became her tenth-grade crush. She daydreamed about touching the dip in his chest where the crucifix he wore rested. She daydreamed about Venice, its water, vibrant with the sun’s reflection, turning the basements and beams and plaster of the city to mush. T wondered why the sun made colors more beautiful than lightbulbs. Why fire and flame turned the world blue and opalescent while the lamp in her bedroom only made things look exactly as they were––the faded green of her rug, the black coils of her hair, the red welt of a hangnail on her thumb. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers had been consumed in a fire, which may have brought out the honey in their eyes, the violet veins in their necks, and a brilliant sheen of the perpetual dew on their upper lips.

    T looked up from her flash cards. Two-hundred forty-six dead. That would equal her tenth-grade class combined with the entire eleventh grade.

    Certainly, no one had died pressing watermarks into paper in Venice and none of her high-school history classes would ever mention Venetian watermarks. And yet, the watermarks continued to captivate her. Every time she picked up a piece of paper––a print-out, a sheet of music, a French quiz on reflexive verbs––she grieved the lack of watermark.

    During the first week of tenth grade, with her parents’ adamantine encouragement, T had asked her history teacher if she’d ever studied them.

    “Watermarks on what?” the teacher said, taking off her fuchsia-framed glasses and snapping them shut in a case.

    T’s eyes darted up to the fluorescent ceiling lights whose beaded covers made them look as if they were perspiring.

    “On . . . ” What were the watermarks on? Why were they even made in the first place? “On paper,” T said.

    “Right, but what kinds? Legal documents?”

    “Yeah, but also just like paper to sell. It was a way of marking where the paper came from. Like manufacturing logos.”

    “Huh,” the teacher said. “And now, nothing’s on paper.” She waved her arm at the laptop open on her desk and T thought, Thanks a lot, Great Courses.

    “Yeah,” T said, defeated. “Do you think there’s like a modern equivalent of the watermark, though? For us?”

    Now her teacher leaned one hand on the desk, the other on her hip. “What do you think?”

    “I guess,” T said. “Like, maybe URLs?”

    Her teacher nodded. “Interesting. Why?”

    “Well, it tells you where the page comes from––and it also glows.”

    “I like that,” the teacher said. “And, you know, I’m sure there are lots of other equivalencies. That’s what I love about history––it seems like everything we learn about has already happened, or has disappeared, but it’s not, because we’ve continued to build on it. Some things––most things––have residual effects. That’s why I don’t believe in anachronisms.”

    “Me neither,” T mumbled. She didn’t believe in anachronisms because she didn’t know what they were, but she’d look it up when she got home and try to use the word in conversation with her parents.

    Now she went to bed hoping she wouldn’t dream herself into the Shirtwaist Factory building. Especially not the elevator shaft or stairway, where many of the young women workers had burned alive. And T did not dream of the Shirtwaist Factory, or of Venice, or maybe she did. She forgot. She forgot because sometime around three she awoke to see her blanket glowing. Her eyes widened, and she picked the blanket up very slowly. After she raised the edge, drawing it up over her dancing teacup pajama shorts, she screamed.

    The blanket wasn’t glowing; her legs were. Her thighs and calves and skinny feet glinted. Inside her legs of glass ran the yellow wires of a lightbulb. The filaments shone brightly, looping and knotting at her knees like the sparklers she and Queenie lit on the Fourth of July, when they waved yellow-lighted loops above the backyard’s dark grass. The filaments spiraled at her joints while a straight wire ran down each of her legs, where the bones should be, and coiled into glowing glass toes at her feet. She followed the lights up her limbs and found a fuse and wire stem at the top of each thigh. She knocked her thighs into her nose as she brought them up to her face. Her lower limbs were weightless and bulbous and she overestimated the force it took to lift them. But this close to the glass she saw inside her new self.


    “I’m asleep,” T thought. “I’m dreaming. I’ll wake myself up.”

    Then: “I’m in a dream inside a dream.”

    She turned on the lamp atop her bedside table, but its light couldn’t compete with the gold shining from her thighs. The edge of her pajama shorts rested on her thighs, and the light streamed through the thin cotton. Palming her glass knees, she felt a steady heat and a low vibration, as if her blood was still humming there, now tungsten in her veins. She could still flex her knees and ankles with the help of small bronze gears spinning inside, but the legs themselves had no feeling other than their slight warmth.

    T gasped, pushed back, and bumped her head against the headboard. She lifted the elastic band of her shorts. At least her vagina wasn’t a lightbulb. Although, that would be pretty cool. Maybe it would emit a pink light and the clitoris would glow bright red.

    Since starting high school, T had almost always found herself on the precipice of arousal. The strangest things could transport her: Keira Knightley movies; a historical novel about young Queen Elizabeth I; plain, un-bunned hot dogs; and, embarrassingly, sex ed.

    T’s history teacher taught the class during the first week of school, which proved awkward for everyone. The teacher didn’t tell the students anything that wasn’t purely anatomical and technical. The students were taught the menstrual cycle, and after a five minute break, returned to learn the stages of pregnancy. T guessed the sex that caused the pregnancy had happened sometime after the woman’s period but before her next cycle. Her history teacher didn’t say exactly when. It was as if pregnancy occurred purely by thought. T knew that kind of thing didn’t happen, but she wanted the full story: Had the woman had sex after school one day? In the library bathroom, in a boy’s bedroom, in her sister’s old room with its Hello Kitty clocks watching her? The hour-long course didn’t cover pornography, fleshlights, Snapchatting nudes, dick pics, or whatever the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey was called. There were no discussions of consent or gender dysmorphia or gay sex. And it certainly didn’t explain body parts turning into lightbulbs. Despite her embarrassment, and the second-hand embarrassment for her history teacher, the class still made T horny. Weeks later during history class, T would be watching her teacher at the Smartboard, her fuchsia glasses clipped at the lip of her shirt, pulling it down slightly to reveal the line where her breasts met, and T would recall what she’d said about sperm swimming the vaginal canal, and her arousal would shrivel into shame.

    Now, however, T began to panic. What skin she had flushed. Her thoughts cascaded. She glanced at her legs once more and then decided she had to wake up her parents. Parents fixed things, bodily things, because children were their flesh and blood. Though T was not, strictly speaking. She was adopted, and now, well, she was half glass. She cried, and her tears streaked the glass. She imagined her mother spraying her legs with Windex, the rag’s squeak on her new skin.

    When she brought the phone to her face, she saw, overlaid on her lock screen of Venice, a notification that made her jaw drop.

    @wayne_cartwright sent you a direct message on Instagram.


    T met Wayne in history class in ninth grade. She had noticed him immediately because he sat in the very back of the room and answered all of the teacher’s questions while everyone else stayed silent. He managed his intelligence with an unnerving level of calm. In his presence, T felt an immediate, misplaced kinship because he was one of the only Black kids in their grade, just like Queenie had been in hers. In ninth grade, Wayne regularly got all As and wore his khakis low on his hips. He played varsity soccer in the fall and ran track in the spring. His lunch table was full of lanky dorks who talked about gubernatorial races and comic books. This year T and Wayne had Algebra I, English, history, and a free period together. It was a marriage in the making. He had a grin that could knock your socks off. T was trying to use this expression instead of the one that came to her the first day of sophomore year: panty-soaker. She wasn’t entirely sure what the expression meant––when you get so excited you pee your pants?—but she’d heard her older sister use it.

    “Hey, T,” he’d said to her in the library during their first week of classes, “you’re kind of like my stalker.”

    She laughed and asked if he’d done the Romeo and Juliet vocab list yet.

    Of course he had.

    When T started staying after school to study in the library with her friends (and to avoid her parents), she and Wayne got to know each other better. His mother was a divorced doctor, so Wayne studied there until six, when his mom picked him up.

    One afternoon they were in the library basement, buying snacks from the vending machine.

    “Wait wait wait––” He covered the buttons with his slender hand. “Let’s strategize. How about I get Sour Patch Kids, you get Red Vines.”

    “M&Ms,” she said, pushing his hand away, her blood leaping like ribbons at the touch of his skin.

    “At least do peanut,” he said.

    She gave him what she hoped was a look. She’d work so hard at this deadbolted insouciance that it would later become her permanent expression.

    “We’re a team, T. The only two kids left in this schoolyard desert. Go with nuts. You love nuts. Nuts.”

    “Ew.” She laughed. “Fine.” Now T only ever ate peanut M&Ms.

    She held her palm out to him as they made their way back upstairs. Wayne took three M&Ms and then held up the blue one. “It’s the same color as your veins.” He popped the M&M into his mouth. “That’s the color I want my motorcycle to be.”

    T imagined Wayne’s slender thighs straddling the leather seat, his hands firmly gripping the handlebars. Panty-soaker.


    And now her legs were lightbulbs. Clutching her phone, she wondered if she should Google it. She’d grown up in a world where your existence––its issues, paradoxes, controversies––were always someone else’s. You could count on the Internet to humble you.

    T considered her knees. Their gears had serrated edges and looked like silver suns; they spun when she bent them.

    “Mom, Dad,” she imagined saying, “I’m a lightbulb.”

    There was only one person in her life she could rely on at this moment, someone who might not only try to help and not freak out but also maybe find lightbulbs for legs beautiful: Queenie.

    T, crying now with worry, imagined Queenie in Santa Barbara, in her beachside dorm room, her brown eyes highlighted in liquid liner, scrolling her phone and entirely oblivious to T’s situation.

    Like T, Queenie was also adopted.

    One night, while they sat together in the TV room, T asked her, “Why didn’t they adopt a second kid from Nigeria?”

    “Diversity,” Queenie said, and kept her eyes fixed to the screen. They had four years between them and Queenie’s jokes often went over T’s head, but as she grew up, they grew legs and walked around her brain, and the more T loved her.

    Queenie rebelled against their parents around the time she got boobs. To T at the time, the boobs seemed part of the rebellion: a transformation Queenie had undergone just to piss their parents off more.

    “Guys,” Queenie always called their parents guys, “They hurt too much to play tennis.”

    The family was seated at the kitchen table, which their mother liked to call the breakfast table, even though they ate every meal at it.

    “Honey,” said their mom, “you can’t just give up on tennis because you’ve gone through puberty.”

    Their father, head bowed over his plate, kept eating. The ceiling fixture’s light shone on his crown, reflecting off his bald spot.

    “What am I supposed to do? I can’t run like I used to.” Queenie’s fork lay conspicuously over her plate cleared of chicken but not the capers or the anthill of white rice. Only years later would T realize that, although her sister acknowledged her new body, she was doing her best to shrink it.

    “Maybe we start considering a reduction,” her mother suggested.

    Their father looked up. “How much is that gonna cost?”

    “Nothing, as I won’t be getting one.” Queenie rose and took her plate to the sink.

    Who better to understand growing new legs than Queenie? Plus, it was only midnight in California. She might still be awake.

    Olivia Nathan received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on her first novel.

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