Chelsea L. Cobb



We are born with over three hundred bones. As we grow into adults, some of those bones fuse together and then, eventually, you should have two hundred and six. When I was ten years old and I still had fusing bones inside of my body, I thought that I had found real human bones in my backyard. 

Summer in Fairborn, Ohio was pleasantly hot. I let my short legs support the weight of my body, all angles and corners, as I balanced into a full squat. Chunks of soil clung underneath my fingernails as I dug my fingers in the earth. Flecks of brown lined my cuticles like muddy half moons. I paused when I touched something smooth. I pulled the bone out of the dirt and studied it, wondering which part of the body this strange short stub came from. Maybe an arm, a thigh? It was no longer than the palm of my hand yet I was convinced that I had come upon a crime scene, or maybe an ancient artifact, the remains of an unfortunate, mysterious life.

What I had thought to be human though, was just a pork rib. They were spare ribs, or side ribs, taken from the underside of the pig’s belly, below the section of back ribs and above the breastbone. These ribs actually have more bone on them than meat. It once was slathered in barbecue sauce and flung out to my dog but now it was stripped from its meat and buried amidst topsoil and turf. I always wondered where exactly the meat came from, what animal with sentient feelings had been placed on my plate. I imagined a pink pig with skin similar to human skin.

I wondered if pigs knew their life would end. If they even understood the magnanimity of it. Pigs are around two months to a year when they are slaughtered. Pigs’ teeth and bones develop through the six months after they are born. Their bones grow and fuse, like my own bones, as they shift underneath their rapidly increasing weight and wait until the day they are no longer conscious. I wondered how many bones it had, how many were still growing and fusing.


You’re nothing but skin and bones. I have always wondered if people thought this was a genuine compliment. Usually, it was accompanied with someone daintily grabbing my forearm and lifting it up in the air, balancing it like a feather. Sometimes, I’d try to laugh or smile but it usually fell short. I have been skinny, borderline underweight, for my entire childhood. My height stopped at 5’2” when I was twelve, and my weight barely fluctuated past one hundred pounds. I thought about that, my abysmal weightlessness, as I watched rap music videos. It was one of my favorite pastimes as a kid in the 2000s when music videos were a thing to actually watch on television. I looked at the women in little to no clothing. 

I was watching the music video “Thong Song” by Sisqó. The camera panned out to a woman in a very small bikini walking towards the beach and the camera focused on her brown thighs, her oiled legs glittering like diamonds under a Brazilian sun. She walked slowly, putting one toe out like a flamingo as the focus zoomed in on the exposed buttock cupped like a “W” on the back of her thighs. She danced front and center, and her behind bounced up and down, slow motion rendering her flesh pliable. Other women danced in their tiny bikinis. Women of different shades of brown danced on the beach. Caramel, butterscotch, chocolate, mocha, cappuccino, walnut: all the cutesy gourmand names that designate black women as something to be tasted, savored, swallowed. They were desserts on a platter and Sisqó opened his mouth, pink tongue hanging out as if he were ravenous. He crooned “Baby, make your booty go da da da da.” And they bounced their butts to the beat, ripples of cellulite and flesh shaking their flanks. 

I wanted to be like them. No, I wanted to be them. To shed off my skin and step into theirs. The girls varied in size but most were voluptuous and curvy. Some skinny, athletic, others “big-boned.” Big-boned is a figure of speech that refers to having a bone structure that is massive in contrast with the surrounding flesh. Some may think that this is an excuse people use to be overweight, but it’s actually not completely false. Everyone’s musculoskeletal structure is unique, varying in sizes and shapes. So one’s bones can in fact be bigger than another’s, even big in comparison, thus making them big-boned. I wondered if my lack of figure just was a biological fact, that my bones were just small. 

I thought of how ridiculous I would look if I were dancing in those videos. How my small frame would look in a bikini, barely filling out the bottom. I’ve always wondered if there was something about my bones, maybe an abnormality of my coccyx or a thinning of my bones that made me appear skinnier and made them more prominent.

And while big-boned can actually be a biological structure, the appearance of a large behind also has an unsexy medical term. Steatopygia is a high degree of fat accumulation in and around the buttocks. This condition was especially found in the Khoikhoi people in Southern Africa. Sarah “Saartjie” Bartman was a freak show attraction in 9th century Europe. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her brain, skeleton and genitalia until she was buried. Her body cast and skeleton stood side by side and faced away from the viewer, her backside the main attraction. White men stood in line to gawk at her figure, both disgusted and aroused, their hands itching in their pockets to touch something they couldn’t name.

I watched Sisqó’s face, his eyes darkened behind sunglasses moving in the direction of a bouncing behind. He looked hypnotized, the black body an enchanted charmer. The chorus ends and in the bridge, he commands them to dance. 

So they dance.


Bone mass is lost as people age. The joints change and affect posture and gait, moving with slowness. My grandmother eased down into the hospital bed, gripping the handles, and I could tell that her bone mass was depleting. As she sank into the angled mattress with a sigh, I could hear her joints creak and wheeze. Years pass and joints become stiffer and less flexible. She settled deep into the bed, her skeleton easing in relief.

My grandmother had skin the color of bones. She was born with albinism, a skin disease that lacks melanin and pigmentation. Her skin was a milky white and as thin as worn notebook paper. Her hair, though, was a bright strawberry blonde, contrasting starkly against her skin. I’ve always thought that it looked like the sun growing straight out of her pink scalp, spun in cottony spirals. The thinness of her skin caused her to scar easily. I remember her arms were covered in thickened and raised scars where she scratched her sensitive skin just a little too hard. As they healed they turned golden, recovering mountains and valleys turning her arm into a gold mine. 

“I think there is some swelling in your arm, ma’am,” a nurse said. My grandmother laid in bed at the hospital, her face slack with the exhaustion of simply lifting herself up. The room was dark, twilight blooming across the Ohio sky outside the window and the beeps of machines lulled my absent mind to a daze. I sat in an uncomfortable chair in the corner of the room next to my sister and mother, and I kept thinking about what my mother said earlier. My grandmother had told her that day that there were two little boys, one older and another younger, waving at her from a window that faced the waiting room. They were smiling, excited to see her. I couldn’t help but wonder if these boys were real or some deep inner memory buried in the back of my grandmother’s psyche. 

“It’s the medicine. It gets to her head,” my mother said. I looked at my grandmother then and wondered what changed in the brain, whatever synapses of neurons traveled different paths behind a frontal bone. Her hazel eyes looked at me and her facial expression changed. 

The facial nerve zygomaticus major is responsible for smiling. There are forty-three muscles in the face and it is debated by scientists how many it takes to smile. However many muscles, the small signals sending messages in the brain to lift the corner of the mouth, I wondered if somewhere among the thick rush of neurons, if she recognized me. Behind the haze of morphine that pumped through her veins, her heart was recovering from a temporary failure. And the monitor beeped on, a high sound indicating alive, alive, alive and alive again. I liked hearing it.

Whatever memory that was contrived or not, I thought about where my grandmother grew up in Alabama around the 50s. Her skin was not the same color as her husband’s or her children. She would read signs for whites only but she knew that she was not white. She was at war with herself, a skin that was an oxymoron. She sat in diners with her family and was refused service because no white woman would sit with a black family. No one had the sources or time or patience to learn about albinism so she lived in halves, undulating between discrimination and unwanted privilege.

I looked at her then, at her smiling at me, and wondered where those memories were. If they were somewhere in a place where images swim up to die. If those little boys were just some subconscious image of a time where life was divided. 

She sat up, slow, bright eyes dancing. A common eye condition in albinism, nystagmus, where the eyes move very rapidly in small circular or irregular motions. My grandmother’s eyes were earthquakes. Her bones strained, joints working to an upright position. Her bones decreasing in mass as my own fuse. I wanted for her to have mine, to take off some of my own years for hers. But I will never know what it is like to live in a skin or a body that feels foreign to myself. Years from now, my skeleton will sag underneath the weight of time lost. When I looked at her, it was like looking at a past that’s foggy and painful but content for the present. Content to be here, right now, with children that looked like the future. 

The nurse examined her arm and sighed wistfully. “You’re not swelled up, I don’t think. That’s just how you’re made.”

I don’t know what the nurse meant with that but I knew that my grandmother was more than swollen skin and a failing heart and blood and bones. She was good and whole and full of pride. She said “hmm” as she touched her arm and looked up at me again, a smile on a face like snow. I smiled back.


“What is that?” The girl put her finger on my protruding sternum and pressed on it. The sternum is the breastbone, a long flat bone that’s known to be shaped like a necktie. It’s divided in three sections: the manubrium, the body, and the xiphoid process. This girl, as she so rudely pointed out, was touching my manubrium, the upper part of the bone that can be felt between the collarbone. I was in sixth grade, standing in line for lunch and I caught the girl next to me staring at my chest. I had on a v-neck and apparently she felt it was necessary to point out that there was a bone sticking out of my chest.

I looked down at her finger and felt her cold, dirty fingertip seep into my skin and give me the creeps. “Uh, my bone.” I shifted away from her, moving my shoulder to the side and her hand dropped. She moved in closer, studying it like an exotic exhibit and I was on display.

“Why does it stick out like that?” Soon enough, her friends were around her and staring at me. I ran my fingers across it, feeling exposed to something I didn’t know was abnormal. 

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” I didn’t know why I was apologizing.

“Do you eat?” one girl asked, not in a mocking way, but clinical. Her seriousness was absurd, her pale face scrunched in concern. I would have preferred her to make fun of me.

“You’re so lucky. I’d have to starve myself to look like you.” I wondered, who did little white girls want to look like? I didn’t know. I didn’t really care. I felt ridiculed and ugly. I didn’t want to be bony. 

I avoided the girls in line and moved to the food area. I grabbed two baskets of fries and extra chicken nuggets. I watched the lunch lady plop macaroni cheese on my plate with a squishy clatter. At the cashier, I asked for two Cosmic brownies. 

“Two?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said and swiped my lunch card. She handed me the brownies and I stared at my plate as I walked the cafeteria aisle, struggling to hold food. I sat down and ate my whole lunch, scooping the last bits of melted cheese off the plate and every rainbow crumb of brownie. My stomach stretched and uncomfortably touched past my jeans. I didn’t care. 

As I chugged chocolate milk, I imagined myself in the back of a dark nightclub and part of some big rap star’s entourage in the VIP section. He’d sit on black leather, golden chains glistening around his neck as he bobbed his head to a thick bass that vibrated the whole building. I’d be in a tight red dress and his arm would wrap around my shoulder and behind his designer sunglasses he’d admire the curve of my hips. He’d mouth to me that I’m beautiful. Other girls would be flocked around him in skimpy but expensive dresses, coolly draped across the couch yet he’d only look at me. A waiter in a tuxedo would carry champagne in an ice bucket to us, offering only the best in the city. He’d take the bottle with a smile and stand up. The beat of the music would pump harder, a steady vibration in the ears and chest. We’d dance, strobe lights flickering, mouths open with laughter and he’d pop the champagne bottle. The fizzy liquid would shoot in the air and reflect golden against bright lighting, spilling down my chest. It’d soak the top of my dress, one that does not show off a bulging sternum but a hefty bosom. The champagne would probably stain and make me sticky. I wouldn’t care.

The bell rang and throngs of students scattered up to recess. I got up with my empty tray, my stomach aching full of over-processed food and a head full of dreams.


Have a backbone. I’ve heard this said from my parents when I failed to defend myself. I didn’t understand because I was sure that I already had one. 

The backbone is the vertebral column or spinal column. The individual bones of the vertebrae house the spinal column that protects the spinal cord. There are over fifty thousand species of animals that have a vertebral column. I am one of them, physically. Metaphorically, I do not know. If you were to break your back, the spinal cord would be severed, leaving you paralyzed. I could only imagine the pain of breaking, snapping into one whole being to one that’s depleting.

I sat at the kitchen table and picked at the remains of a chicken bone. My brother sucked on the remains of his and popped it out of his mouth with a loud smack. He grabbed the ends with his fists and forced it down, the bone quivering underneath the force. I looked back at the chicken on my plate, bits of meat and vein clinging to the leg bone. Again I thought about its life before. I imagined a white chicken clucking on a farm, hard orange feet kicking up dirt. I wondered about its age. And how old it was when its age stopped. 

My brother strained on the bone and it broke, a sound that’s ripping. I flinched and he looked at the broken bone with pride. There was a tingling in my arm, an unhinged pain where a broken bone was not. I got up and rinsed off my plate. 

Bones are complex on the inside and the outside. They are oxymorons—light but strong. They protect our body, produce blood cells, and surround our heart. Sometimes, I’d stand in the mirror and run my fingers down my visible ribs, the cage surrounding my beating life organ. I hated them, as much I hated my protruding sternum or lack of butt. 

But then I’d look at the photograph wedged into my mirror of my grandmother winking. It was taken a few years before she died. I looked at her skin, shining white against the flash. And I knew there were much worse conditions to live under. 

Even though I knew this, twelve-year-old me will wish for a body with curves. Twelve-year-old me will stand in front of the refrigerator light and eat until my stomach stretches like a tiny hill. And I’ll gain nothing but a bellyache. 

I’d try to remember what it’s like to be breathing—for her. So I pulled my shirt down and walked away from the mirror. I’d like to think that the next time someone would ask me about my bones I would not cave in. I would have a backbone. I would not say, “I’m sorry.” Because I am not the sum of my bones and my body is not an apology. 

But living in a house of bones takes time before you can name your body home.

The human body has two hundred and six bones. And each day, my bones become more brittle as my spine shortens. Time takes away my height and inflames my muscles. Aches actualize as pain and yet the pain reminds me that I am alive. And what good is there in noticing our mortality? In staring at death? 

So I let my bones fatigue. I let my gait change. I let these joints curl into fists, interlock with a lover’s hands, pull up weeds in the garden. And if there are bones buried deep in the soil that my grandmother planted, then I will know that life was never meant to be static. That one day, you will pull an ancient relic out of the surface of the earth, blow away the dust, and these bones will remind you that this is who you are. Who you’ve always been.

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Chelsea L. Cobb is currently a Creative Writing Ph.D. student and graduate teaching assistant at the University of Georgia. Her writing has won the Margaret Harvin Wilson Writing Award and was nominated as a finalist at the Agnes Scott Writers’ Festival. Her work can be found in Stillpoint Literary Magazine, The Spectacle, and elsewhere. Bagels are her muse.